Saturday, February 13, 2016

How I lowered my cholesterol, in four easy steps

Here's how science can kick cholesterol's butt.

I'd had my cholesterol checked a few times before last year, and it was a bit high, but I wasn't really concerned. True, I'd started the high fat "paleo/primal" diet in 2012, and I'd been wondering if all that meat and fat might affect my heart, but I also knew the research was mixed (see here and here, for example). So, I ignored it and kept eating as much bacon as I could.

Then, in July 2015, my total cholesterol was up to 218, and my doctor mentioned the unmentionable: "We should probably take a look at statins," he said, "or if you want, you could try changing your diet first."

I didn't want to change my diet, which had lost me 30 pounds and had me feeling very good, but I also didn't want to take statins, with their potential muscle and liver damage.

I decided to do my own experiments.

I found It's a site where you can order blood tests, get your blood drawn at Quest Diagnostics, and get the results the next day online.

My plan: Get baseline data, and then every month change one variable (diet, lifestyle, etc.), and see if it changed my cholesterol.

I began last October. My baseline LDL (the bad cholesterol) was 163 mg/dL--in the "high risk" category. Since then, I've done four separate, controlled experiments on my body--one per month.

The experiments

November: Reduced saturated fats. I quit coconut milk (used in my smoothies and curries), bacon, and bacon grease (used for cooking).

December:  Supplements. I decided to start taking my old supplement regime, which included some supplements that I thought might help lower my cholesterol (Phosphatidyl choline and EPA/DHA complex). I added back the coconut milk and bacon so I could be sure I knew exactly which change had the effect.

January: Wine. I quit the supplements, kept the fats, and increased my wine intake to every day instead of just the weekends. I know, it was tough, but my health was worth it. :-) But seriously, red wine has been shown to have a beneficial effect on LDL and HDL (see here and here).

February: Exercise. Cut back to weekends-only with the wine, keep the fats, and add more exercise. For this, I started doing CrossFit at CrossFit Storrs three times a week for a month (in addition to my normal, much milder workout regime).

The results

The graphs speak for themselves.

(Data is beautiful, and science is so awesome!)

Reducing saturated fat  lowered my LDL.

Supplements had no beneficial effect.

And wine... wow! This is your HDL on wine:

After a month of a couple of glasses of home made Cabernet per night (with beer on my Saturday cheat days), my HDL went from 51 mg/dL to a whopping 60, and LDL went down as well!

And then there was CrossFit... Boom! After a month of CrossFit, my LDL was a full 24 mg lower than baseline--almost out of the red zone, and HDL was up again.

But to see the real power of these last two experiments, let's take a look at the total to HDL ratio. Because HDL counteracts LDL, this ratio may be the best way to assess risk, and the CrossFit drove the ratio down to 3.4, a full unit below the highest it had been.

This month, I didn't want to stop CrossFit, but I'm doubling down on the saturated fat reduction--cutting out coconut and bacon again and reducing red meat and eggs.

Finally, next month I'll put it all together: reduced fats, increased wine, and CrossFit. I'm hoping to push that LDL into the orange zone, that ratio right through the floor of that graph, and those statins right out of the realm of possibilities!

It's been so much fun doing science again, especially on my own body! It's a great example of the power of the scientific method for solving real problems.

Avoiding statins is huge, but discovering CrossFit has been a major added bonus! The people are awesome, the workouts kick my butt, I feel great, I'm learning all sorts of new skills, and I'm getting stronger.

Meanwhile, keep calm and science on!

PS: Obviously this is not a replicated study, so all these effects could be random. It would be great to replicate this, but that would take a long time. What the heck. Maybe I'll do it. But I'm also hoping that by adding all the beneficial factors together at the end, I can increase confidence in the effects.

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