Carole Tashel, author
My love of plants and whole foods began in Los Angeles in 1979,
when I was moved by the beauty, simplicity, effectiveness and
potentially revolutionary aspects of natural healing. I began
offering classes in Natural Foods Cooking. In 1982, I moved to
New Mexico to attend a two-year program with herbalist Michael
Moore at the Institute of Traditional Medicine. I began teaching
classes and worked as a consultant for eight years in the outstanding
Santa Fe retail store, Herbs, Etc. To share my explorations in
permaculture and gardening, I wrote Gardening the Southwest: How
to care for your land while growing food, medicine and beauty
I offer individual health consultations, where you are empowered
to make changes that last. My wild plant walks are a fragrant,
tactile and tasty way to connect with the legacy of healing options
from the backyard to the forest. Workshops and classes feature
lively, clear explanations about how plant medicines work. I invite
you to join me in these activities, so you can gain the confidence
to use herbs intelligently.
also offer a FREE e-mail newsletter (6 times a year), The Earth
Medicine Gazette, full of interesting and useful information on
herbs, foods, common illnesses, drugs, and medical tests. To subscribe,
send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org,
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Carole Tashel, Clinical Herbalist & Educator
Why the experts are wrong on cholesterol
let’s get one thing straight: Cholesterol is really our
friend. It’s necessary to form adrenal and sex hormones,
vitamin D and bile (a digestive fluid). It also gives cell membranes
their proper shape, and helps carry fatty nutrients to every body
tissue. If levels are too low, we sicken.
all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol levels.
How, then, did we come to believe that high cholesterol levels
cause heart disease?
go back to the early 1900s, when coronary heart disease was relatively
rare in America. What were people eating then? Prodigious amounts
of rich organ meats, chicken and goose fat, butter, lard and tallows
— all highly saturated fat, all from free-range poultry
and grass-fed animals. Saturated coconut or palm oil was used
as shortening in most bakery items; French fries were cooked in
palm oil. All farming was organic then, soils were rich and foods
were nutrient-dense. As the 20th Century progressed, America’s
food lost more and more of its integrity.
In 1911, Procter & Gamble added hydrogen to cottonseed oil,
turning it into a semisolid fat at room temperature. Thus was
Crisco® born. Hydrogenation results in what’s called
a “trans” fat, never before encountered by the human
body. Gradually, other hydrogenated vegetable oils found their
way into crackers, chips, cookies and a host of other snack and
fast foods. Back then, we didn’t understand the impact of
these fake fats. Now we know they make blood platelets sticky,
damage cholesterol itself, and inflame fat-containing structures
like blood vessel walls, which, it’s thought, initiates
the cascade of events leading to heart disease. Trans fats also
push the LDL:HDL (fat/protein complexes) ratios in an unhealthy
direction. A robust HDL level is a sign of cardiovascular health,
indicating that fats are absorbed into the tissues, where they
‘30s and early ‘40s, heart disease was on the rise.
In 1948, the Framingham Heart Study aimed to determine risk factors
associated with heart attacks. Though 240 risk factors were eventually
identified, a high cholesterol level drew the most early interest.
Soon, high cholesterol became synonymous with being a sitting
duck for a heart attack.
were several flaws in this thinking. First, though cholesterol
may have been associated with heart attacks, it does
not necessarily cause them. One big mistake was that
early researchers failed to distinguish between saturated, monounsaturated
and polyunsaturated fats. Neither did they differentiate between
HDLs and LDLs; lumping them together, they searched for ways to
lower the total sum. Their mistaken conclusion was that all
fats were bad.
Napoli of the Center for Medical Consumers raises another question
about the direction of research. She writes in the November 2003
HealthFacts newsletter, “Research focused on cholesterol
because it is a modifiable risk factor (translation:
drug industry opportunity).” Opportunity or not, the first-generation
cholesterol-lowering drugs (Lopid, Cholestyramine) had extremely
uncomfortable side effects and low compliance.
Americans were advised to lower cholesterol by eating less saturated
fat (eggs, red meat, butter, full-fat dairy), and began dutifully
eating products like margarine, imitation cheese, egg-replacer
and even “imitation ice milk” — tasteless, fractured
foods. Cholesterol, the experts said, could be lowered by using
more polyunsaturated oils like corn and safflower oils. Just one
problem: these oils are unstable and easily damaged (oxidized)
by processing and cooking (to say nothing of hydrogenation). It’s
worth noting that the ancient Ayurvedic (East Indian) medical
tradition viewed safflower oil as the most dangerous oil.
fear of fat and cholesterol ran rampant, our fat profile radically
changed. According to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, PhD, authors
of Nourishing Traditions, in the last 80 years, America’s
intake of vegetable oils (including margarine, shortening and
refined oils) increased an astonishing 400%. The use of butter
and other saturated fats plummeted. Complying with medical experts’
advice and customer demand, manufacturers of baked and fried foods
switched from healthier palm and coconut oils to hydrogenated
soy, corn, canola and cottonseed oils.
back at the ranch in the ‘50s, in a move that would prove
to have serious consequences, the meat industry began moving animals
from pasture to feedlots to fatten them on grains before their
slaughter. Free-range hens, once enjoying a diet of both grains
and their fill of weeds, insects and worms, were moved to factory
farms and exclusively grain fed. Fish farming got started, and
the fish were being fattened with — you guessed it —
fish and animals fatten quickly, improving industry’s bottom
line, but there is a down side to these foods. The ratio of omega-3
to omega-6 fatty acids veers in the wrong direction, and our health
suffers. While omega-3s reduce the risk of heart attack by calming
inflammation, protecting blood vessels and decreasing high blood
pressure and inappropriate clotting, omega-6s, on the other hand,
are inflammatory and increase the tendency to blood clots
and high blood pressure. Vegetable oils and grains are top-heavy
some sobering examples of what happened to our animal foods: Grass-fed
animals have an omega-3:6 ratio of 1:2.5, whereas grain-fattened
animals are 1:14. Free-range hens’ eggs boast a 1:1 ratio,
while commercial, grain-fed hens’ eggs are a whopping 1:19!
Even wild fish offer better omega-3:6 ratios than farm-raised
fish. Grass-fed butter and cheese products likewise have completely
different ratios than products from grain-fed cows’ milk.
the strong link between animal feed and human health, why don’t
we hear more about this problem? Jo Robinson, author of Why
Grassfed is Best! and co-author of The Omega Diet
(with Dr. Artemis Simopoulos), describes part of the problem:
“Much of our animal research is funded by commercial interests
— specifically the grain, chemical, pharmaceutical, farm
equipment, and meat-packing companies. Together, these vertically
integrated behemoths have a multi-billion dollar stake in perpetuating
craze continued well into the 1980s, Americans ate more omega-6
fats than ever (which also make people gain weight). At the same
time, a sedentary lifestyle together with a sharp rise in the
intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates added up to a glut of
unused fuels. Obesity is not the only result of such a scenario:
The liver transforms unused carbohydrates into a surfeit of triglycerides,
which predispose people to heart disease. It seemed we had gotten
nowhere in attempts to combat cardiovascular disease.
few voices in the wilderness insisted that when people with an
inherited tendency to overproduce cholesterol were excluded, there
was little evidence that high cholesterol is a causative factor
in heart disease. Further, they claimed, faulty carbohydrate metabolism,
obesity and diabetes are far more dangerous risk factors. An alternate
theory emerged: The disease develops in response to blood vessel
injury incurred by smoking, inflammation, high blood pressure,
etc. Once the inside lining is damaged, cholesterol catches on
the rough, damaged spots.
PROBLEM WITH INDISCRIMINATE SCREENING
1987, The National Cholesterol Education Program (which includes
the pharmaceutical industry) launched a public education effort
called “Know Your Numbers.” Routine cholesterol testing,
once reserved for those who already had heart disease, was now
promoted to everyone, regardless of age, symptoms or risk factors.
Such indiscriminate screening often gets ahead of a true understanding
of an illness, and can set people up for lifetime medication.
decades, researchers had tried — and failed — to prove
that lowering cholesterol saved lives. Then in 1995, a Scottish
study on Pravachol, one of the new potent cholesterol-lowering
drugs called “statins,” finally succeeded. This meant
the drug could be prescribed preventively, and millions
of people could take it, for the rest of their lives. (Ironically,
the drug may save lives not because it lowers cholesterol, but
because it’s an anti-inflammatory.)
in 2001, the federal government lowered the threshold of the “normal”
total cholesterol level from 300 to 200, resulting in millions
more people being put on cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Healthy people with high cholesterol might want to think twice.
A 2001 review of all relevant statin trials concluded that these
drugs harm as many people as they help. Statins block a liver
enzyme necessary to make cholesterol, something that seems inherently
unwise. The long-term consequences of suppressing cholesterol
synthesis are unknown, as studies lasted but five years.
all patients on these drugs eventually deplete Coenzyme Q10, a
heart-protective antioxidant. (If someone you love is on these
drugs, make sure they take 200 mg/day of CoQ10. It’s also
possible to reduce the statin dosage by using other supplements.)
conventional medical dogma stubbornly clings to the idea that
cholesterol levels can predict future heart disease, there are
two other tests that may be much more accurate. First, elevated
C-Reactive Protein (CRP) levels indicate inflammation, but testing
is most useful in high-risk people such as smokers, diabetics,
etc. The other test is for homocysteine. When elevated, homocysteine
is correlated with pathological buildup of plaque, and hardening
and blockage of blood vessels. Health-care professionals suggest
supplements of vitamins B6, B12 and Folic Acid to bring the levels
down. This is one test to discuss with a progressive doctor.
YOUR WAY TO HEART HEALTH
The case is strong for a dietary connection to cardiovascular
disease, but the problem is not what the experts led us to believe.
Remember two things: the quality of the fats you eat
is much more important than the quantity; and excessive
carbohydrates/sugars can set the stage for problems. There are
many theories about how to structure your diet, but that discussion
is beyond the scope of this article. Also, some people may not
thrive on meat or dairy, so fine-tune all dietary and herbal choices
with a health care practitioner to allow for constitutional differences.
some health-enhancing tips to consider. As you make these changes,
both your HDL:LDL and your omega-3:6 ratios will improve. Inflammation
will decrease, and cholesterol levels will probably drop, which
will make your doctor happy. If you are already on statins and
would like to quit, arm yourself with all the research you can,
then talk to your physician.
Know what you’re eating. If you buy anything
in a can, jar or package, start reading the labels. You will make
the unpleasant discovery that hydrogenated fats and undesirable
vegetable oils (as well as sugar) are in most of these foods,
even in some so-called health foods.
Eat real fats. Beef, buffalo or other animals raised
exclusively on pasture provide healthy fats. The popular deep-sea
fish like halibut, tuna and salmon do, too. But because mercury
concentration is a real concern with these large fish, allow the
smaller herring and sardines to contribute to your omega-3 quota.
If you have hardened your heart against them, try herring chunks
(packed in wine sauce) with mixed baby greens, roasted red pepper,
artichoke hearts (packed in water), sliced carrots, a handful
of pumpkin seeds, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Substitute sardines
in your tuna salad. A yummy snack: Portuguese whole sardines,
packed in olive oil (Bela brand, distributed by Blue Galleon),
goat cheese, sliced radishes and lettuce on whole rye crackers.
Goat or sheep dairy products are preferable to those from grain-fed
animals. Walnuts, hemp, flax and pumpkin seeds offer omega-3s,
as do dark green leafy vegetables and seaweed. Avocado is among
the healthy “monounsaturated” (omega-9) fats, along
with pecans, almonds and some other nuts. Happily, a small piece
of bittersweet chocolate (good fats and antioxidants) and a glass
of red wine (antioxidants) each day contain compounds that support
the cardiovascular system! A critical mineral for heart health
is magnesium — in short supply in the American diet. You’ll
find it in anything green — chlorophyll-rich, leafy green
vegetables, seaweed, green herb teas (nettle, raspberry, alfalfa,
horsetail) — as well as oatmeal, almonds, brazil nuts, pecans,
walnuts, dried figs and dates.
Choose the right oil for the job. The two best
oils for raw use are flax and walnut oils (Spectrum is a reliable
brand). Unsaturated oils must be refrigerated and never
heated. In a foolish attempt to jump on the "healthy"
bandwagon, many baked goods contain safflower oil or flax seeds,
both badly damaged by heat. Throw out your corn, safflower, almond
and canola oils. Canola can deplete vitamin E (essential for hearts)
and is susceptible to rancidity. What’s more, when it’s
deodorized, the dreaded trans fats are created. Olive oil (another
omega-9) can be used liberally, raw or cooked. Get unrefined,
extra virgin. Ghee (clarified, organic butter) is good to cook
with as well — it won’t burn as butter does. Use peanut
and sesame oils only occasionally.
I predict health-enhancing, extra-virgin coconut oil (try the
Garden of Life brand) will make a big comeback soon. It tastes
and smells lovely, stores at room temperature for at least a year,
does not promote weight gain, and enhances the immune system with
potent anti-microbial properties. Use for high temperature cooking,
in smoothies, and in baking. Buy Newman’s Own cookies, now
made with organic palm oil (another healthy tropical oil). Palm
oil is widely used by savvy European food manufacturers as an
alternative to partially hydrogenated oils.
Herbs can help, too. Dandelion and burdock roots
are bitter herbs that promote bile flow, emulsifying fats thoroughly
for proper absorption. (You can eat nutty-flavored burdock root
as a vegetable, too — scrub well, slice thinly, and add
to stir-fries.) Other herbs like green tea or Eleutherococcus
(formerly known as Siberian Ginseng) can normalize cholesterol
levels and regulate metabolic functions.
Love. Finally, spirituality and connection nourish
a healthy heart — open to love and compassion for yourself
and others. Relax, dance, walk and smile as much as you can. And
may you enjoy eating your cholesterol from now on.
learn more about the benefits of eating grass-fed meat and dairy,
and find out who’s producing it in your community (note:
Standard Market, listed as a source in Santa Fe, has closed.)
HealthFacts for Informed Decision Making, newsletter
by the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, Center for Medical
Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition
and the Diet Dictocrats, by Sally Fallon with Mary Enig,
The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, www.thincs.org
Earth Medicine Gazette, free e-mail newsletter (six times
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Carole Tashel works with wild and cultivated plants as a clinical
herbalist, teacher, gardener and author. 505-466-6153.