Fighting in the cholesterol wars
TWO years ago, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I arrived home and thought to check my answering machine.
I often don't remember to do this, and it certainly was not a message I welcomed.
My doctor's office was informing me that it had received the results of blood tests performed at my company's health fair.
They were calling in a prescription for something to bring down my cholesterol.
Really high cholesterol.
I had been warned about my levels years before, but I was a borderline case so I chose to ignore it. Now I wasn't borderline.
There was some irony here. Did I mention it was the day before Thanksgiving? Also, looking back on my diet that day, I realized I'd had eggs for both breakfast and lunch.
The next day was hardly the holiday of years past. I cooked for my extended family, as usual, but I was pretty much afraid to eat. On my plate went a little turkey and some cranberry salad but not the good stuff — gravy, rolls, dressing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
The next day I filled the prescription.
To this day I have not swallowed a single pill out of that bottle.
Instead, I hopped online and began to educate myself.
The search produced a book called "Cholesterol Down" by Janet Brill, a licensed dietitian. She offered a diet and exercise plan that supposedly allowed many people to bring down their cholesterol levels without medication.
When the book arrived a couple of days later, I devoured it. Actually, with my new fear of food, by that time I was hungry enough to do that literally.
Brill knows her stuff. Her book gets a little technical but is grounded in credible science. Her plan involved 10 steps: One was exercise. Nine were specific foods or over-the-counter supplements she recommended her patients consume every day.
She goes into great detail about how much of these foods, and in what form, people should eat. They include oatmeal, flax seed, soy protein, apples, almonds, beans, psyllium, garlic and something called plant sterols and stanols that can be taken in tablet form or consumed in certain food products.
I was already medication averse, in case you can't tell, and further put off by what I read about the possible side effects of statins. The muscle aches sounded especially unappealing.
I decided to try Brill's plan for a month. If I couldn't achieve the results she described, I would take the pill.
It worked. My total cholesterol and LDL, or bad, cholesterol both dropped dramatically. My HDL — let's call it my happy cholesterol — stayed high, and that was desirable.
I wish this story had a happy ending.
A week ago, my doctor called. As usual, he had received my most recent blood test results before I had.
He wasn't calling to praise me.
The news wasn't all bad. My HDL was higher than ever, and my ratio of total cholesterol to HDL was fine. But the villainous LDL, believed to be a contributor to heart disease, was way too high.
He neither scolded me nor insisted I start on the statin right away. We agreed to give it another month, with me doubling down on my strategies.
He expressed hope that I would succeed and even called me his "poster child" for taking charge of one's health through lifestyle changes. Like a coach at halftime, he pumped me up.
So I am back into Brill's book, rereading to see where I'm going wrong. This refresher course is causing me to concentrate not only on what I should eat, but also on what I shouldn't.
So much for Thanksgiving.
I realize, and accept, that in a month I may swallow that first statin.
This will not be defeat. If I continue my healthy eating habits and exercise, I may get by with a low dosage, making the adverse effects less likely.
Early heart disease claimed my father, sister, uncle and grandmother.
On Thursday I'll skip the fatty foods, but will be thankful for living in a time when people can see trouble ahead and do something about it.
Friend is editor and publisher of the Daily Mail. She may be reached at 348-5124 or email@example.com.