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Cutting Cholesterol — Naturally

If you have high cholesterol and are among the growing number of people who are wary of taking statins to combat it, you might want to consider a more natural alternative.

The good news is that many people don't need to rely on drugs to get their cholesterol to a healthy level. (According to the Mayo Clinic, that means total cholesterol below 200, LDL below 100, HDL 60 and above for men and 50 and above for women, and triglycerides below 150.)

"It is absolutely possible to lower your cholesterol without drugs," asserts Dr. Ellen Heinitz, a naturopathic doctor with The Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Grants Pass. "Diet and exercise are the first two places to start. There's no magic pill, but it can be done. But people who aren't willing to alter their diets are working against the odds."

A cholesterol-lowering diet doesn't have to be radical, Heinitz says, emphasizing that dietary cholesterol doesn't raise the body's cholesterol as much as saturated and trans fats. And another thing "¦

"Not enough attention is given to sugar. It can really affect cholesterol, as well," she explains. "Staying away from the white carbohydrates is very important. That includes white sugar, white flour, white rice, white bread and white pasta."

Heinitz' other dietary recommendations include loading up on vegetables and fruits, as well as very lean animal protein — especially if it's grass-fed and humanely raised. As a general rule, she supports the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains, with moderate amounts of fish and chicken, and low amounts of red meat, with olive oil as its main oil.

For exercise, she says, a combination of cardio and strength-training an hour a day, five days a week, is ideal.

If diet and exercise alone don't work, the doctor recommends a number of natural supplements, including fish oil, niacin, Indian gooseberry (amla), antioxidants and the B-vitamin pantethine. Heinitz suggests a liver detox regime to improve liver function and reduce the amount of fat in the liver, as well as to "re-set" the body to combat sugar and other food addictions.

Heinitz cautions that the first few days of exercising and clean eating "can feel just awful." But patients usually start feeling better within a week and can show positive movement in their cholesterol numbers in three months.

But is it enough?

Dr. Philip Paden of Paden Eye Care Center in Medford isn't a cardiologist or a naturopath, but he is an enthusiastic advocate of a stricter natural approach to lowering cholesterol called the Esselstyn Diet, which is outlined in Caldwell B. Esselstyn's book, "Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease."

His passion for this way of eating — built on unrefined, oil-free, plant-based food choices — stems from experience. He got his proverbial "wake-up call" at age 62, when his 92-year-old father died from vascular dementia.

"For a year and a half, I didn't know what to do. I just got fatter and sicker and more depressed," he says.

But then he was introduced to Esselstyn's book and radically changed his way of eating. Within seven months, he lost 50 pounds. His LDL cholesterol, which was 154 at the time, went down slowly but steadily over the course of the next four years and currently is at 66. He's a walking testimony to the fact that no matter what your age, you can take control of your heart and overall health.

"I've seen people in their 80s get rid of their diabetes, get rid of their high cholesterol," he says.

The Esselstyn approach eschews eating plans such as the popular Mediterranean and Paleo diets, and even the vegan lifestyle — all of which he says are "nutritional nonsense" that are popular because they allow people to adhere fairly closely to the typical Western diet with a few, minor tweaks.

Advocates of the Esselstyn approach point to the superior health and longevity profiles of people in societies where the diet centers around whole, unrefined, plant-based food. For more insight into Esselstyn's diet, Paden recommends the books "Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition," "Solving the Healthcare Crisis" and "The China Study." This way of eating can be considered extreme, Paden admits, but it has to be.

"If a recommended diet does not differ dramatically from the Standard American Diet," he says, "then the resulting health outcomes will not dramatically differ from the current situation."

Conventional wisdom

Even as statins come under increasing fire for their potentially serious side effects (liver dysfunction, destruction of muscle cells, and memory loss and cognitive impairment among them), the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology recently released recommendations that broaden the range of people who should be taking them. Among them are anyone with heart disease; those with bad (LDL) cholesterol of 190 or more; and any middle-aged person with type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Miruais Hamed, a specialist in interventional cardiology at Southern Oregon Cardiology, acknowledges the risks of taking statins, but he agrees they're the best course of treatment/prevention for certain patients who can't get their cholesterol down with diet and exercise. But he is quick to point out that changes in diet and exercise are essential to maintaining good heart health, whether you take statins or not.

"There's a misconception that taking a drug to lower your cholesterol without changing your lifestyle is going to be sufficient. It's not," he explains.

For patients who have not had a heart attack or stroke, the doctor's recommendations are pretty straight-forward: Stop smoking; lose weight; stay hydrated; eat a healthy diet high in fiber, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low in red meat, with little to no fast food; simply eat less overall; eat progressively smaller meals throughout the day after a hearty breakfast; and get half an hour of aerobic exercise daily and half an hour of muscle-training exercise twice a week.

"These are very reasonable and easy steps you can take. There's no need to take medication unless you have a need for it,' Hamed says.

Cutting Cholesterol Naturally