A couple of recent events got me thinking about cholesterol and fitness and the relationship between them. The first is my old high school tennis coach - he's now approaching 70 and still actively teaching (just a fantastic teacher and person). For the past 30+ years he's been actively training and has a high level of fitness. He ran the Boston Marathon a couple of years ago and is still doing marathons and other distance events. He was training for an upcoming event and didn't feel well so he went to the doctor. After tests they said his cholesterol was too high and they wanted to do a double bypass on him. When they performed the surgery they luckily found no heart damage but the saw a lot more blockage than expected. The result was a quadruple bypass surgery. But because of his fitness he was discharged pretty quickly and is starting to feel much better than before.
The second event is my riding buddy - same age (mid-50's) who's been on his bike since he's been in his 20's - always fit, a former bike courier, knows every racer going back to forever, etc. His latest checkup showed a higher cholesterol level than before. He had borderline cholesterol before, but stopped eating oatmeal every morning, now the doctor wants him on Lipitor. Of course like many fit people, he's resisting and will probably try to fight it for a short time through diet and suppliments.
Anyhow, it opened my eyes to the fact that fitness doesn't always go hand in hand with good health - genetics has a lot to do with it. Luckily, my cholesterol level is good, though my diet has hopefully contributed to that (I've been a vegetarian - for the most part - for the last 30+ years). Anyhow I came across this blog entry by Sally Edwards, the author of "Heart Zone Cycling" (just bought it a week ago & I really like it). Thought I'd pass it on to this crowd as cholesterol is an issue for many.
Do you have High Cholesterol Just Like Me?
By Sally Edwards
December 11th, 2006
For the past 30 years, I been tracking my blood chemistry and keeping my records. Ever so slowly, the levels of cholesterol have progressively risen. My blood chemistry records go back to 1973 when cholesterol wasn’t broken into the two parts: happy high (good) and lousy low (bad). At that time, at the age of 26 my reading was 135 mg/dL. During the intervening years, I trained and raced some of the hardest races in the world – winning the Western States 100 Miler, the American River 50, the Iditashoe 100 miler and the women’s team division in Race Across America. And, my cholesterol kept rising. When I passed through menopause at the age of 50, my cholesterol kept rising. When it hit 260 mg/dL my Kaiser doctor said I want you, Sally, to take medication for your high cholesterol and I said, “Dr. Gonzales, you are right that I need to do something to reverse this, but taking a prescription drug isn’t the right thing to do for me or for Americans. I can figure this out and fix it.” He disagreed with me saying, “I expected that answer from you.”
I took Dr. Gonzales reliance on medication as a challenge. I extend it to you as a challenge. There are many ways to lower cholesterol and I challenged myself to find one that worked for me. I started by asking my friends how they succeeded at lowering their cholesterol. My sister-in-law, Kathleen Edwards said that she ate oatmeal every morning for a year and her cholesterol which was slightly over 300 mg/dL dropped down to 207 mg/dL. Another friend took grapeseed extract (GSE) which is made from small seeds of red grapes – the same kind of grapes used to make wine. It worked for him. I choose another track – drop my body weight by 10% and cut out all animal fats. According to my reading of the literature, reducing all saturated fats from your diet and lowering your percent body fat were the two most aggressive acts that I could take. What happened with my weight loss and nutritional changes? I dropped 14 pounds of weight didn’t eat cheese or other animal products for eight months and went back to have my cholesterol checked. I was expecting great results but I soon discovered that I had failed to make a difference. My cholesterol dropped 5 mg/dL, a measly5 points. All of that effort for a 1% improvement is failure.
What next? Another 8 months this time with a new treatment strategy that I created – large doses of vitamins and minerals especially niacin and red rice yeast, both known to help with cholesterol. Daily, I took my cocktail of vitamins and minerals like a religious practice. Niacin was hard on me and caused flushing so I cut back the dose. I returned to eating some dairy products and gained 5 pounds back during the next 8-month trial period. With great anticipation, I headed back to Kaiser leaving my blood sample behind and my hopes high. This time the results came as an email – go on line and check out the results rather than receiving the results in the postal mail. I won. The new total cholesterol number: 217 mg/dL. This is a 25% improvement in 8 months.
The take away lesson from this is for me is that we are all different. My body did not respond to removing saturated fats from my diet or decreasing my body fat. Your body may respond to this or to grapeseeds or oatmeal. My body responded to vitamins and minerals including an emphasis on niacin (a vitamin B) and red rice yeast.
What next? You guessed it right – another 8 months of the same vitamin cocktail to see if I can break through 200 mg/dL without any pharmaceutical solutions. I challenge you to get regular check ups and to explore health solutions that work for you. Don’t give up if your solution doesn’t at first work. Rather, continue to explore your physiology and find what does work for you.
Note: My Kaiser Dr. Gonzales just emailed me the following, “Sally, You did well. You will notice that your lipoprotein A is elevated, this is an independent risk factor, and it will not vary much. I know your feelings about medications, but I hope you are at least on one baby aspirin per day.” And my answer to Dr. Gonzales is that I’ll now start to work on a strategy to lower my lipoprotein A. Aspirin seems harmless enough but I don’t want to take it for the rest of my life. Thanks, Dr. Gonzales, we make a good team!