Cardiovascular diseases are currently a major killer of Americans. Stroke, heart attack, myocardial infarction, and the like are the end result of a chronic disease process that is often brewing for decades. Although conventional healthcare establishments are still laser focused on reducing cholesterol and blood pressure with medications, this approach completely ignores the silent drivers of cardiovascular disease that slowly break the body down.
Instead of treating symptoms, as healthcare providers, we should be asking why our patients are experiencing these symptoms in the first place. What is pushing the biochemical pathways toward cardiovascular damage and away from repair and healing? The truth is that there are extremely well researched risk factors for cardiovascular disease that can be addressed and reversed well before the body is in a state of urgent danger.
Addressing the 6 Most Overlooked Causes of CVD can mean the difference between life and death
#1 Blood Sugar Imbalance
It is a well known fact that chronically high blood sugar and diabetes significantly increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This increased risk occurs because elevated blood sugar leads to a cocktail of damaging effects. First, sugar (glucose) attaches to red blood cells causing “glycated hemoglobin” which is measured by testing HbA1c. Two primary issues that are caused by elevated glycated hemoglobin are damage to tissues (like blood vessels and nerves) and an overstimulated immune response that increases inflammation throughout the body.
However, what many people don’t realize is that the same damage may be happening to their body even if their HbA1c looks normal. In fact, the majority of my patients have a normal HbA1c, but when we test their blood sugar throughout the day, they’re experiencing ongoing spikes and dips that cause a similar inflammatory response. Even though their “average” blood sugar looks healthy, the rollercoaster of poor glucose balance leads to damaged blood vessels and increased risk of CVD.
By eating a whole food diet that is naturally low in simple carbohydrates, much of this can be avoided. If you really want to find the “sweet spot” for blood sugar, use a glucometer to track
your blood sugar and identify meals that keep you in range (80-100mg/dL one hour after eating) and eliminate those that throw you out of balance.
#2 Poor Diet
In addition to eating foods that keep your blood sugar stable, it’s critical that your food is nutrient-dense. The human body needs a diverse array of foods to ensure that it’s getting all of the vitamins and minerals it needs to function optimally. The cardiovascular system has a high demand for nutrients such as Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, Vitamin D, calcium and zinc.
However, it’s not as simple as filling your cabinets with supplements. Your body has to strike a delicate balance between micronutrients. FOr instance, copper and zinc compete for uptake so taking too much copper or too much zinc can throw the body out of whack. While we tout the importance of Omega-3, Omega-6 is important too. What drives health or disease is the ratio of these nutrients. There is nothing wrong with a high-quality multivitamin or fish oil, but eating a variety of whole foods is the best way to ensure that your body is getting what it needs. If you’re concerned that you may be micronutrient deficient, a trained functional medical provider can help you assess your nutrient balance.
#3 Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea starves the body of oxygen during sleep. This deprivations sets off a cascade of survival responses in the body. Aside from the obvious lack of oxygen making its way to tissues, researchers have identified three other cardiovascular damaging effects of sleep apnea. Apnea causes sympathetic activation, or a stress response that puts your body into a state of fight or flight while you rest. Additionally, sleep apnea increases free radicals which leads to oxidative stress and tissue damage. Lastly, apnea results in systemic inflammation causing a chronic increase in immune activation which also leads to tissue damage and less immune tolerance.
#4 Chronic Infections
Countless chronic infections go undiagnosed and untreated. Viruses like Ebstein Barr (which causes mono) and herpes which can manifest as anything from cold sores to shingles can live in the body throughout life causes symptom flares and low level inflammation. Other infections such as microbial overgrowth in the gut can develop as a result of poor diet, antibiotics, birth control, stress, traumatic injuries and more. Many of our native bacterial species are healthy in the right quantities but when their colonies get out of control, bi-products like TMAO can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system.
This set of conditions doesn’t even factor in external gut infections such as parasites or E. Coli. These microbial imbalances lead to a host of symptoms that may be experienced as everything from dysfunctional digestion, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn to food sensitivities, joint pain, migraines, skin conditions and more.
However, where these hidden infections may do the most undercover damage is to the cardiovascular system. While the direct target of their assault is not necessarily vascular or heart tissues, the increased immune response which leads to chronic stress and inflammation within the body means that the cardiovascular tissues is vulnerable. Continual damage to these tissues increase risk of plaque formation, high blood pressure and stroke.
#5 Toxic Overload
The health risks associated with the toxic burden our bodies are tasked with filtering each day is just starting to be realized. Everything from air pollution to toxins in water and food must be degraded and excreted by the gut, liver and kidneys on a constant basis. With the extreme pressure this puts on the body, it is near impossible for these systems to keep up and eventually most of us end up with some level of toxic overload.
Overload occurs when chemicals are stored in tissues throughout the body impairing cellular function. Overtime, our organs become less efficient, especially those tasked with filtering these molecules. The cardiovascular system, which acts as a transportation highway for healthy compounds like oxygen also bare the burden of transporting chemicals. Overwhelming evidence has shown that increased levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead are linked to cardiovascular disease. Medically supervised chelation treatments can help to pull these metals from the system, therefore, decreasing risk. This point illustrates the vital importance of improving detoxification systems by eating a healthy and plant-heavy diet, staying active, sweating, drinking plenty of purified water, and increasing the micronutrients that help your liver, gut and kidneys move toxins out of the body each and everyday.
#6 Hormone Imbalance
Our bodies rely on hormones to communicate messages from one system to another. The cardiovascular system is no exception. Cardiovascular tissues rely on hormonal messages to respond to ever-changing demands on the body as a whole. One example of this is thyroid hormone. While we often only think of thyroid in regards to metabolism, dysfunction thyroid function and imbalanced thyroid hormones directly increase risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers think that poor thyroid balance impacts cardiovascular health due to its relationship with cholesterol metabolism, vascular tissue health, blood pressure regulation and even direct effects on the muscular tissue of the heart.
Other examples of the realtionship between hormone regulation and cardiovascular health include insulin, cortisol and sex hormones. Insulin resistance and poor insulin regulation are directly linked to cardiovascular disease. Cortisol, one of our body’s primary stress hormones can now be used to predict cardiovascular risk. Cortisol not only impacts direct functions of the cardiovascular system such as blood pressure, but it impacts the entire hormonal system including insulin, thyroid and sex homones leading to a storm of imbalances that deteriorate cardiovascular function.
Sex hormones are no exception. It is well-accepted that the decrease in circulating estrogen that women experience as they move through menopause increases risk of cardiovascular disease. Testosterone reduction in aging men is also correlated with increased risk of cardiovascular function but the mechanisms are not fully understood.
With all of this in mind, it is obvious that conventional approaches to reducing risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol with pharmaceutical is largely “missing the boat”. Reducing our risk of developing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease requires a comprehensive and multi-factorial lifestyle overhaul . Our systems do not function in isolation, but together as a symphony of actions and reactions that are affected by everything from sleep, diet, and exercise to stress, toxic exposure, and immune health. The path to protecting the cardiovascular system is by optimizing the body as a whole.