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Who Is In Charge of Your Health?

July 14, 2012

Should they be in charge?

A couple of recent incidents have got me pondering the question, who is in charge of your health? Kelly the Kitchen Kop has revisited a very upsetting case about the medical system forcing children to have chemotherapy, even, as in this case, when the child is cancer-free: Update on the Stieler Case – Creating a Dangerous Law Where Doctors Are Always Right.

Are doctors always right? Obviously not. It’s a logical fallacy to assert that someone’s research or opinion or position on a particular topic is correct simply because they have certain credentials. And too many of us have learned to automatically trust and respect anyone wearing a lab coat and an “M.D.” name tag without taking responsibility for our own health decisions. I am not hostile to medicine, but I don’t trust doctors that haven’t learned anything post-medical school about nutrition, aside from the USDA food pyramid (or, currently, “My Plate“). Food is not just fuel, it is meant to provide the essential raw materials our bodies need to function. If our food doesn’t provide the elements needed, including tiny amounts of various micronutrients, we are set up for eventual dysfunction and disease.

Here’s a completely different, albeit no less dramatic, situation that I became aware of this week.

A coworker, whom I’m guessing is in his 60s, told me this story about his wife, who is suffering from memory problems, possibly early dementia. The previous day, she had told him that someone, she has no idea who, called their house, and she, the wife, gave this unknown person her full name, address, birthdate, social security number, bank account number, and credit card numbers. Thank goodness she remembered she had done this and told her husband, who spent the evening making no doubt frantic phone calls to the bank and credit card companies. Next week he’ll be taking time off work to drive an hour and a half to the nearest Social Security Administration office to present various documentation proving they are who they say they are. Horrifying, right?

What if this kind of dementia were not only preventable, but was actually being caused or exacerbated by medical treatment? I think there’s a good chance this is exactly what’s going on.

I started talking to Lance (not his real name) about my 83-year-old mother, who recently experienced Transient Global Amnesia. It was very frightening for her to suddenly realize that she had no memory of how she got where she was or who she was with or what she was doing. Fortunately, she wasn’t driving a car or crossing the street, but gardening with a neighbor in their quiet retiree neighborhood. Apparently I’m not supposed to know this happened, as Mom doesn’t want to alarm her children. Well, I’m alarmed, because I know Mom at least used to be on statin drugs to lower her cholesterol (why, oh why???!!!), and TGA is a known, though rare, side effect of statins. Statins are known as the “thieves of memory” for a reason.

“But what do I tell the doctors, who insist she has to take them?” Lance asked me plaintively. Ever the diplomat (not), I blurted out, “The doctors aren’t in charge of your and your wife’s health, you two are!”

A light went on for him. It had apparently never occurred to him that they had a right to question or even disobey a doctor’s recommended course of treatment. I went on about the need for cholesterol for health — yes, cholesterol is a nutrient, not a dangerous, foreign substance! — the pressure from pharmaceutical companies that doctors are under to prescribe drugs, drugs and more drugs, and the fact that the only demographic group shown to benefit from taking cholesterol-lowering drugs is middle-aged men who have already had a heart attack. Not all men, or even all men with risk factors for heart disease. Not women, of any age. And the mechanism at work is thought to be anti-inflammatory action of statins that isn’t clearly understood. (But let’s throw it at the “problem” of high total cholesterol anyway!)

Cholesterol is a health-promoting substance. It is a critical component of cell membranes, the precursor to all steroid hormones, a precursor to vitamin D, and the limiting factor that brain cells need to make connections with one another called synapses, making it essential to learning and memory.

Alzheimers-DiseaseWell, Lance was all ears, so I told him about a book I had at home, though I hadn’t gotten to read it yet, the told the story of a woman, who happens to be a doctor, who saved her husband from the dementia of Alzheimer’s disease through dietary intervention, specifically coconut oil (and perhaps MCT oil, medium-chain triglycerides, a good source of ketones). I have heard podcast interviews of this doctor some months ago, so the exact details of the story are now fuzzy in my mind, but Lance was interested so I lent the book to him yesterday. The book is Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure? The Story of Ketones, by Mary T. Newport, M.D.

Here is Mary’s own story, along with the research into ketone bodies she used to develop a successful treatment for her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease. Here are links from her website about Alzheimer’s, ketones, coconut oil, etc.: http://www.coconutketones.com/importantlinks.html.

An astronaut experienced Transient Global Amnesia and wrote a book about it. http://www.spacedoc.com/transient_global_amnesia.htm

Now, obviously, I am not a doctor or any other kind of medical professional. I have great interest in nutrition and health, and these are some of the primary areas my reading and study have focused on over the years. I may sign up for a certificate course in nutrition one of these days, time and finances permitting, and you should always take with a grain of salt any health advice you get from me or anyone else, including doctors, in my opinion. I am sharing my opinions and the evidence my study has turned up. Do your own research. Understand the issues, talk to your doctor about your concerns.

Cholesterol, fat, statin use and Alzheimer’s disease

When I found out about my mom’s TGA episode, I started communicating with my siblings about it. I’ll get to check up on Mom myself when I see her soon at our family reunion. Here’s what I wrote to my sister:

This whole idea that fat and cholesterol cause heart disease is an awful meme that seemingly won’t die, even though it’s not supported by science. Cholesterol is made and used by every cell in the body. It is a repair substance, and also helps build our brains, neurotransmitters, Vitamin D (sunlight reacting with cholesterol in our skin creates Vitamin D). If we don’t eat enough of it for our needs, our bodies will make more of it. Except for people with genetic familiar hypercholesterolemia, the amount you eat of it doesn’t make much difference in your blood cholesterol levels. And total blood cholesterol have almost nothing to do with heart health. First they thought it was total cholesterol, then it was HDL vs LDL, then they learned that it’s the ratio of each not the absolute numbers, then they learned that there is more than one kind of LDL and only one of them is harmful, the small, hard LDL particles (you want big, fluffy LDL!). And yet people still worry about whether their total cholesterol is over 220.
And at the same time, the makers of statin drugs (among the BIGGEST blockbuster drugs in history, if memory serves) keep encouraging doctors to prescribe statins to more and more people. There has even been discussion of putting it in the water supply — not serious, I hope! What is considered normal total cholesterol keeps getting lower and lower, which makes more and more of the population a potential patient that is customer. And it’s wreaking havoc with our health. It causes muscle pain, memory loss, among other things, and very low cholesterol is associated with depression, suicide, and violent death. (I used to have really low cholesterol and thought at the time it was a good thing; it probably had something to do with the depression and other health problems I was experiencing.) Cholesterol is a nutrient, not a menace; it is a vital substance our bodies need, that’s why they make it!

Chris Masterjohn is a brilliant young PhD. candidate in Nutritional Sciences with a concentration in Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition at the University of Connecticut. His blog, The Daily Lipid, is hosted on his site Cholesterol-and-Health: Uncovering the truth about America’s most demonized nutrient. He wrote about side effects of statins here. Here’s a short excerpt from his home page:

One of cholesterol’s most important functions is to support learning and memory — that is why the brain is so rich in cholesterol, and that is probably why statin drugs can cause a disorder called transient global amnesia.

In low-risk populations, over 600 people need to take a statin to save one from a heart attack. In high-risk populations, over 60 people need to take one. Yet the rate of side effects like muscle pain is much higher, and the worst side effects — failing memory, depression, irritability — are chalked up to personality or age and never recorded.

Sign up for his infrequent newsletter, monitor his blog, or simply peruse his short website sections on Cholesterol Biochemistry, Cholesterol and Health, Cholesterol and Disease, and Cholesterol Politics. More from Chris: Statins Kill Your Brain — Amnesia and Other Side Effects, plus The Biochemistry of Cholesterol — Cholesterol Chemistry 101, and also Cholesterol – You Can’t Live Without It!.

I first started questioning the whole cholesterol-and-saturated-fat-cause-heart-disease theory more than 10 years ago when I read Beyond Pritikin by Ann-Louise Gittleman, and learned of the political manipulation that demonized coconut oil — now considered a tool to fight dementia — and saturated fats and elevated industrial seed oils, at the expense of our health. (I have the 1989 edition, not sure what changes there may be in the linked 1996 edition.) Then I read Uffe Ravnskov’s The Cholesterol Myths: Exposing the Fallacy that Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease, which is out of print but has been updated and reissued as Ignore the Awkward: How the Cholesterol Myths Are Kept Alive. Ravnskov, a Danish physician, former professor and independent researcher, looked at the actual data in various studies being used to support the cholesterol-heart disease theory and found a huge gap between the headlines and what the data actually showed. (I’ve seen this before myself. When I was a health-care industry and science editor at Bloomberg News, I learned to read research studies for myself to make sure the reporter writing them up hadn’t misinterpreted them. Relying on a press release leads to lots of inaccuracies.)

Gary Taubes covered much of the same ground as Uffe Ravnskov (and so much more) in Good Calories, Bad Calories, and the bibliography and citations are valuable for follow-up. Around this time I discovered the Weston A. Price Foundation, and their important work showcasing the pivotal research of their namesake into traditional diets of healthy peoples and the startling idea (to many) that the foods that have been demonized in the media and by the USDA are, in fact, the most critical to health: animal fats, meats, especially organ meats, stock made from bones, eggs, especially the yolks, butter or butter oil, cod liver oil. (Next in importance are vegetables, tubers, herbs, fruits and nuts, and dairy and grains if well tolerated and properly prepared.)

Chris Kresser is another of my go-to nutrition gurus. Check out these links:

Why you should eat more (not less) cholesterol

5 reasons not to worry about your cholesterol numbers

More food for thought from my collected links:

coconut-oil-and-alzheimer’s-disease

Lardy, lardy when will they learn?

Major Side Effects of Statin Drugs

It’s Not Dementia, It’s Your Heart Medication: Cholesterol Drugs and Memory: Scientific American

Good Fat, Bad Fat — A Video Tutorial | Food Renegade

The case for not restricting saturated fat on a low carbohydrate diet

Fat: It’s Not What You Think by Connie Leas

How the Ideology of Low Fat Conquered America — La Berge 63 (2): 139 — Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

LDL: “bad” cholesterol or bad science?

cholesterol not cause of heart disease

Cholesterol – You Can’t Live Without It!

7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat

Do High Fat Diets Make Us Stupid and Lazy? | Mark’s Daily Apple

The Surprising Role of Dietary Fat for Health and Well Being/ New Frontiers in Neurofeedback

Fat Head – Blog site for the comedy-documentary Fat Head

My Family Ate 40 Pounds of Butter in 3 Months — Holistic Kid

Articles on cholesterol from Weston A. Price Foundation (a goldmine!)

Finally, just because somebody puts something in a blog doesn’t mean it is valid, of course. Some of the above links are blogs from ordinary citizens like myself, but they are well-written, well-argued and based on sound science. I have not linked up every claim in this blog post either, but the more scientifically based links are a good place to start investigating the science. Personal anecdotes are also helpful in illuminating the concepts. These are the conclusions I arrived at after considerable reading on the subject over many years (especially the past 8 years). I may have remembered some facts wrong and I will update with fixes as soon as I can, but I stand behind the main points here.

Again, do your own research, but consider this: why would God or Nature or our Evolutionary History (whatever your preferred explanation for life) have filled our world with natural foods we’ve been eating (as a species) for a very, very long time, if it were poison? Why would our body make and use cholesterol in every cell if it were so bad for us? How would paleolithic humans have survived to be our ancestors if animal fat and cholesterol were bad for us?

Consider, also, the power of the profit motive to distort truth and scientific knowledge. I have nothing against profit, but that must be weighed when you consider the incentives that various institutions, organizations and individuals have for their actions. Some of us are motivated primarily by ideas, values, and a sense of mission, others are motivated primarily by money and power. Most of us have some of several motivations within us. I think it’s a fair question, when looking at the pressures that have shaped the American diet in the past century, to consider who is profiting from the status quo or the recent broad changes to it.

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4 Comments
  1. Sally_Oh permalink

    THIS is an excellent article. This is how I often blog: I get on a topic and then share EVERYTHING I’ve learned on that topic. I don’t have to do that for cholesterol now — thank you!!! Sharing this everywhere! May I blog about this and quote some of what you say with a link leading back to this article?

    • Sure, that’s always good etiquette, thanks for asking. I’ll check out your blog, thanks for the link. Cheers!

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