Dear Dr. Blonz: My doctor told me that my cholesterol was elevated, but that it was not high enough to require medication. He let it go at that, saying I should watch what I eat, cut down on dietary fat, and come back to be retested in six months.
Could you give me some information on lowering my cholesterol in a natural way? My diet isn't really that great, and I don't want to end up a statistic.
Dear T.W.: With such a short note, it is difficult to know what you bring to the table in terms of your age, weight, lifestyle, health history and current state of health. All these are key factors in devising a plan that would be best for you. Your question, however, is one that's often asked. Permit me, then, to speak generically about what the average individual should consider doing.
The key to a successful plan would, of course, involve a healthful diet, but it takes more than just watching what you eat and cutting down on dietary fat. Success also relies on regular exercise and, many times, a program that gives you tips about an often-neglected component of good health: stress reduction.
For your diet, consider making a gradual move toward a more plant-based diet that focuses on vegetables (lots of greens), fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish, nuts and low-fat dairy products. Your fats should be predominantly monounsaturated, such as olive oil; and with the exception of fish, there should be a minimum of animal (meat) products. With these guidelines, you needn't be too concerned with cutting all the fat out of your diet. One important exception, though, would be to eliminate all sources of partially hydrogenated fat. Read the ingredient statement on your food labels to locate this dietary demon. As my readers have heard for years, I consider partially hydrogenated fat to be a more insidious influence on health than just about anything else we eat.
Try to make sure that your diet contains at least 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber. To this end, start every day with a high-fiber cereal. I would also try to use garlic whenever possible, as this has been found to reduce an elevated blood-cholesterol level.
Exercise is an important adjunct to any cholesterol-lowering program. It not only improves overall heart health, but also helps change the types of cholesterol in your bloodstream--making more of the highly desirable HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and less of the not-so-desirable LDL (low-density lipoprotein). After checking with your physician, I would start an exercise program, starting slowly with daily walks and gradually increasing my level of exertion. I would aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise, three times a week.
Stress reduction is an important part of the cholesterol picture. It is not as obvious as diet and exercise, so let me provide a little background.
The classical stress reaction is designed to prepare the body for "fight or flight" action. Under stress, blood pressure begins to rise. Blood flow to the skin and the digestive system is reduced, and a greater supply is directed toward the large muscle groups. Muscle fuels--stored fats, amino acids and quick-energy carbohydrates--enter the bloodstream. In preparation for any potential injury, platelets, the blood components that help stop bleeding, increase in number. Hearing sharpens; pupils dilate to increase the field of vision; breathing deepens to provide more oxygen; perspiration increases to keep the body cool; and finally, muscles tense in preparation for action.
Danger exists for individuals under chronic stress who are at high risk for cardiovascular disease. The increased level of circulating fats from the stress response means there will be an increase in blood cholesterol as well--something that individuals with an already high blood-cholesterol level cannot afford. Blood clots are involved in heart attacks and strokes, so when you figure in the increased level of clot-producing platelets and the higher blood pressure, it's easy to see why stress is associated with a higher incidence of heart disease.
The method one chooses for stress reduction is personality dependent. General guidelines would include having outlets for stress, such as your exercise program and other recreational activities. It also helps to have friends with whom you can share both the good times and the bad. And finally, some find relief in relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga. I would opt for all three if stress were a major player in my life. Good luck, and be sure to check back in to let me know how things are proceeding.
Ed Blonz is the author of the "Your Personal Nutritionist" book series (Signet, 1996). Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Newspaper Enterprise Assn., 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016 or e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Personal replies cannot be provided.