High cholesterol doesn't run in my husband's family, but he has become an exception. Last month he returned from a yearly physical looking glum. "Doc has given me three months to take some weight off and lower my cholesterol," Patrick said. "He says even taking 10 to 20 pounds of weight off will considerably lower my odds of heart disease," he added. When I met Patrick, he was a broad-chested, thin-waisted, athletic man who wore his pants at size 32 and weighed in at 185 pounds. Years of happy marriage, big feasting parties, and little exercise have given him a girth. He now wears size 38 pants, and the number on the scale has topped off at 220. I figured a little research on lowering cholesterol would help jump start the new Patrick. My sister Meg gave me further inspiration: her husband Carl has had high cholesterol for years. "He hasn't been taking his medicine," Meg complained, "so I figure he will be having a heart attack any time soon. The doctor wants him to take Lipitor, and he just doesn't take it. I tried to sneak lots of fresh garlic into his diet, but it was giving him awful gas, so now he does nothing." She seemed hopeless. So I decided to try to get some info for her man and mine.
I began with some online research. The American Heart Association website gave me some starting info. "Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found among the lipids [fats] in the bloodstream and in all your body's cells. It's an important part of a healthy body because it's used to form cell membranes, some hormones, and is needed for other functions. But a high level of cholesterol in the blood -- hypercholesterolemia -- is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack. Cholesterol and other fats can't dissolve in the blood. They have to be transported to and from the cells by special carriers called lipoproteins. There are several kinds, but the ones to focus on are low-density lipoprotein [LDL] and high-density lipoprotein [HDL]. Low-density lipoprotein is the major cholesterol carrier in the blood. If too much LDL cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the walls of the arteries feeding the heart and brain. Together with other substances it can form plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can clog those arteries.... A clot [thrombus] that forms near this plaque can block the blood flow to part of the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. If a clot blocks the blood flow to part of the brain, a stroke results. A high level of LDL cholesterol [160 mg/dL and above] reflects an increased risk of heart disease.... About one-third to one-fourth of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. Medical experts think HDL tends to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it's passed from the body. Some experts believe HDL removes excess cholesterol from plaques and thus slows their growth. HDL cholesterol is known as 'good' cholesterol because a high HDL level seems to protect against heart attack. The opposite is also true: a low HDL level [less than 40 mg/dL in men; less than 50 mg/dL in women] indicates a greater risk. A low HDL cholesterol level also may raise stroke risk."
After a night lying next to my husband, imagining I could hear the plaque building up in his arteries, I hit the health food stores to find some cholesterol-reducing foods and vitamins. I started with my local Henry's Marketplace because the saleslady in the vitamin section seems to know something about everything. "Of course, the first things he needs to start doing," she said, "is exercising and eating all the good foods, lots of fruits and dark green vegetables, oats, and nuts. Flax seed oil also helps with cholesterol," she said, pointing me to the shelf of oils. "The oils are more concentrated than taking the pills. All the brands are pretty comparable, but the Health from the Sun brand [ $15.99 for 16 oz.] has a longer shelf life. Garlic also helps with cholesterol. Garlinase Fresh by Enzymatic Therapy [ $29.99 for 100 tablets] is the best brand that we sell," she offered. "In Europe, when they tested the effects of garlic on cholesterol, they used this brand," she added. The box stated "The No. 1 Selling Garlic," and "Closest to Fresh Garlic," and better yet, "No Garlic Breath." That would be the real seller for Patrick, I thought. We had both shared a classroom in college with a girl who swallowed whole cloves of garlic in the morning and oozed garlic the rest of the day. It was not a pleasant experience sitting in a room with her. "But how is it possible?" I wondered. The box read, "Enteric-coated tablets reach the small intestine, so you get garlic where you need it and avoid garlic breath." I hoped Patrick, who always has to know how things work, would be satisfied with that explanation. It would be a tough sell, considering the pills smelled like toasted garlic.
The Henry's saleslady offered one more suggestion. "Red Yeast Extract by Healthier Lives [ $17.99 for 60 capsules] also helps with cholesterol and this brand is our strongest potency."
I bought both packages and headed on to Whole Foods. "Some people have had success with Guggul by Nature's Formulary [ $20.49 for 60 capsules]," explained the salesman pointing out the bottle. On the back label, it claimed that in the Indian holistic medicine called ayurveda, "Guggul is believed to help remove accumulated fat by-products, a result of Kapha imbalance, and joint conditions, a result of Vata imbalance."
And for people who naturally have high cholesterol, the Whole Foods salesman continued, "HDL Booster by Enzymatic Therapy [ $39.99 for 120 tablets] helps boost good cholesterol, the HDL." The bottle stated, "Increase good cholesterol (HDL) levels up to 23 percent." Can't turn that one down, I thought, and snatched up a bottle for my man.