What You Need to Know About Cholesterol Management by Functional Pharmacist, Caroline Healy RPh
I get asked the same question often: so how does a pharmacist end up in the holistic medicine field? This accompanied by a curious sometimes incredulous expression. It makes me smile because my journey as a pharmacist began 20 years ago and it took me a while to brave the leap into the holistic realm but I am so glad that I did.
I worked a few years in retail after graduating from pharmacy school at which time I realized very quickly how we as a culture turn to pharmaceuticals and how enthusiastically we seek a quick fix to make a symptom “go away” vs. taking the time to look at the problem with a mindful approach, holistically taking the big picture into account. Subsequently, I worked 10 years as a clinical pharmacist in a hospital and also got to see first hand how life saving medications are. It was a great experience and I felt like I really was making a difference. But I also wondered what could have been done differently with a lot of these folks with chronic disease.
As a science minded individual it is important to wade through the faddish, reactionary, often times biased or straight up dangerous information that is out there in cyberspace and focus on the science. So let me tell you a story about my first patient 10 years ago:
• I read a study that bioflavonoids lower cholesterol as effectively as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, which is a really complicated name for statins, the class of pharmaceutical drugs used to treat high cholesterol.
• Soon after a friend called me with some concerns. He was a healthy middle aged male, no serious health issues. But his physician had just run a lipid panel and his “bad” cholesterol was high, and his “good” cholesterol was low. He didn’t want to take a statin and asked for my help, so I offered to put him on a plant based regimen for 6 weeks. I started him on high dose bioflavonoids to reduce his “bad” cholesterol plus a high dose high grade Omega 3 EPA DHA supplement to boost his “good” (cardioprotective) cholesterol. This regimen was combined with a few modifications in diet.
• 6 weeks later my friend went to his office visit and the physician announced proudly that the statin had done a great job and that his lipid panel looked great! (It turns out he was quite a fan of that particular drug. The attractive drug rep with the communications degree and a basketful of muffins must have really made an impression.) He was curious to hear that a plant based regimen and a few dietary changes were responsible.
Granted patient cases are rarely this simple and there are many other factors that contribute to determining the best, individualized treatment, but in short this experience taught me that yes, there are plant based alternatives that are effective and safe. So therein began the journey.
Cholesterol management is not as simple as it sounds. I could bore you with the hard core science and the big words that will wrap your tongue into a knot but instead I will break it down. This is what I have learned over the years:
1. It’s not necessarily in the numbers it’s in the inflammation! Cholesterol numbers are not the end all. We do treat high cholesterol but more importantly we treat underlying inflammation which is ultimately responsible for the disease process. We reduce oxidative stress. One way to do this is by adjusting our diet to eliminate bad fats and incorporate good fats (think avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil for cooking. Eat fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, lean grass fed meats). For bad fats think processed foods. Stay away from hydrogenated fats. When treating high cholesterol and for reducing the risk for cardiac disease, I often use a regimen that contains xanthohumol from hops, a potent anti-inflammatory along with phytosterols, prebiotics, and nutritional support.
2. Phytonutrients are my go to for treating high cholesterol and preventing heart disease! They are best consumed in food form vs. supplement form. Food is medicine and organic, whole foods are the best way to keep your body healthy. However, that said. I don't know about you guys but I have a tough time getting the dozen servings of fruits and vegetables recommended into my diet every day. Life is busy. So yes I do depend on supplementation. I just make sure its high grade, quality tested.
3. Omega 3 EPA-DHA is the stuff! High dose is best. It offers cardioprotective and anti-inflammatory effects (also great for arthritis, depression, allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders). It is a wonderful supplement particularly for those with a family history of heart disease it is a must for treatment and prevention.
4. You must have prebiotics in your diet! Prebiotics are a food source for the gut micro biome. There are many natural sources of prebiotics such as dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, barley, oats, apples, cocoa, flaxseeds, seaweed. Yes, folks, an organic apple a day does indeed keep the doctor away.
5. Ask a professional when it comes to supplements. Please do not take the stuff off the shelf from your local drug store chain (no names mentioned). Or one of those sprawling bulk stores (again no names mentioned). Supplements are not as well regulated as you might think so stick with pharmaceutical grade supplements that are put through rigorous quality testing. You usually will get those through holistic physicians, naturopaths, chiropractors or pharmacists that use supplementation in their practice. It’s an investment but worth it.
6. Talk to a professional about possible side effects if you are taking a statin so that you are informed. Statins can cause muscle weakness and toxicity. A lot of these drugs are also being linked to endocrine disruption, liver issues, nerve damage, depression, and nutrient depletion. Statin drugs deplete the body of coenzyme Q10 and selenium so if you are on a statin or have been on one you are most likely deficient and need supplementation.
7. Having your cholesterol too low is not good for you. A lot of physicians are treating borderline high cholesterol these days very aggressively. Lets try a lifestyle adjustment and plant based supplementation first! If your cholesterol is too low, it puts you at risk for cancer, mental illness, cognitive and hormone imbalances, neurotoxicity. The reason is that cholesterol plays a vital role in cell membrane integrity, hormone production, and immunity.
So I hope this helps sum things up folks. I do hope that no muffins or communications majors were injured in this blog. I wish you health, happiness, and lots of laughter in your wellness journey.
Caroline Healy RPh
Follow me @functionalpharmacist & https://www.facebook.com/functionalpharmacist