Dr. Michael Klaper answers questions on a wide variety of health and nutrition-related subjects. To submit a question or topic for possible inclusion here, send e-mail to: answers@DoctorKlaper.com
Question for Dr. Klaper:
“How can we protect our arteries?”
The 17th century physician Thomas Sydenham, said, “You are as old as your arteries.” A person in his or her twenties whose blood vessels have become stiffened and clogged is aged, and at risk for heart attack, stroke and sudden death. If your arteries are flexible and open, bringing life-sustaining blood to your brain and vital organs, you are youthful, no matter what birth date appears on your driver’s license.
The death of H. Jay Dinshah, Founding President of the American Vegan Society, of an apparent heart attack at age 66, brings to light the reality that consuming a plant-based diet may not be all that is required to protect our arteries as years go by.
Scientists have discerned that there are factors – beyond the consumption of saturated animal fat – that may contribute to atherosclerotic plaque accumulating in, and ultimately clogging, vital arteries in the heart and throughout the body. Minimizing these risks should be a goal for all modern-day vegetarians and vegans, as well as for our omnivorous brothers and sisters.
Assure adequate reserves of Vitamin B12
Elevated blood levels of homocysteine, a byproduct of the metabolism of the essential amino acid methionine, can contribute to damage of the artery walls, which is viewed as an early step in the build-up of atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries. Cobalamin (vitamin B12) is essential for the metabolism and elimination of homocysteine, and if vitamin B12 in the blood is not adequate, homocysteine may rise to artery-damaging levels.
Because modern-day vegans and vegetarians do not consume vitamin B12 from our environment as did our ancestors (on the surface of root vegetables, drinking water from free-flowing streams and wells, etc.), people nourishing themselves on exclusively plant-based foods would be wise to consume vitamin B12-enriched foods, or some food or supplement containing at least 5 to 10 micrograms (mcg.) of vitamin B12 one to two times weekly.
This can be conveniently done via vitamin B12-fortified foods (nutritional yeast, soy and rice-based beverages, etc.) or supplemental cobalamin, via tablet, nasal gel, vitamin spray or sublingual “microdot.” Larger doses (50 to 1000 mcg. several times weekly) are proving to be efficient at helping vegans maintain adequate B12 stores in their body.
Minimize consumption of sugars and processed carbohydrates
Candies, soft drinks, pastries, white flour breads and other refined carbohydrates can contribute to artery damage in several ways. The threat is not from a half teaspoon of maple syrup in one’s tea for flavoring, but rather from eating sugar in quantity, as a food. When you have a candy bar or piece of cake in your hand, you are consuming a chunk of sugar, sometimes by the ounce, and even by the quarter pound! When one consumes refined sugars in such quantity, the blood sugar level rises dramatically and the blood “runs sweet” for several hours.
As the blood suffers this saccharine flood, molecules of sugars can stick to structural proteins in the blood vessel walls, a process called glycosylation. In this way, proteins whose flexibility is essential, namely the collagen and elastin that compose the lining of our arteries and capillaries, become “sticky,” oxidized and ultimately stiffened and damaged. Over the years, such glycosylation makes our vital vessels more prone to micro-cracking through daily movement, high blood pressure, etc., inviting deposition of atherosclerotic plaque. Sugar-eaters age themselves from the inside.
High sugar levels may also induce high levels of insulin, which can then elevate levels of inflammatory prostaglandins in blood vessel walls. These pro-inflammatory substances can, in turn, accelerate the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaque. We would be wise to return sugar to its original role – as a subtle flavoring, rather than as a party food for mass consumption.
Assure adequate reserves of antioxidant vitamins and minerals in the bloodstream
Cholesterol in the bloodstream does not tend to stick to artery walls until it becomes oxidized (loses electrons). Modern life exposes us to many agents that can oxidize cholesterol – chlorinated drinking water, polluted air, free radicals in fried and processed foods, etc. It is essential to avoid these oxidizing agents to the greatest extent possible. Avoid drinking chlorinated tap water, minimize processed food intake, (especially fried foods and those containing hydrogenated oils) and try to ensure that your body’s supply of antioxidant vitamins (vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene, etc.) is kept “topped up.” Eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables really is important for vegans.
We all agree that eating more fresh produce is a good idea, but given our modern life and diets, it is something that many of us may not actually do often enough. It is helpful, and potentially lifesaving, to become an artist at finding ways to work more fruits and vegetables into your daily food intake. Have a salad daily, break out your vegetable steamer and make steamed green and yellow vegetables a part of almost every dinner. Cook up a big pot of vegetable soup or stew and freeze some of it in containers to thaw out for instant veggie-meals, etc. Eat more fruits and vegetables as if your life depended upon them.
If you are exposed to highly oxidizing conditions – breathing city air, working in sealed buildings, aerobic activity during work or recreation, late nights at the computer, etc. – it may also be wise, in this modern age, to take supplemental antioxidants containing vitamin C (250-500 mg.), vitamin E (preferably mixed tocopherols, 200-400 I.U.), and selenium (100- 200 mcg.), once or twice daily.
Avoid excessive intake of omega-6 fats
Commonly-used vegetable oils, such as sunflower, safflower, corn, commercial “all-purpose” vegetable oil (usually cottonseed and corn oil), etc., are “unbalanced.” They contain only omega-6, or linoleic acid, one of the two essential fats needed for cell membranes and artery health. These oils are completely lacking in the vital omega-3 fat, linolenic acid, and an omega-6-heavy diet may put the person consuming it at risk for artery damage.
Be sure to have omega-3 fat-rich foods in your diet daily, such as a handful of raw (preferably organically grown) walnuts or pumpkin seeds, or a tablespoon of flax seed or hemp seed oil daily. (Flax seed oil and hemp seed oil are fragile and should not be heated. Use them as “topping” oils – over steamed vegetables, brushed onto bread or corn on the cob, added to salad dressings, etc.)
Detect and treat high cholesterol levels
Some people have genetic predisposition to elevated cholesterol levels. This rare condition can contribute to artery clogging and should be diagnosed and treated with exercise and a low-saturated- fat diet. For these people, niacin and, possibly, cholesterol-lowering medications can be used to advantage under the supervision of a physician.
Two other factors, not directly related to diet, should also be of concern to everyone:
Assure adequate exercise
Regular, daily, preferably mildly aerobic, activity – brisk walking, pedaling an exercise bicycle, swimming, etc. – is essential to keeping one’s heart strong and one’s arteries flexible, healthy and free of clogging plaque.
Avoid sustained high levels of stress
The body’s reaction to acute stress (e.g., suddenly seeing a truck bearing down upon you) is to release a burst of adrenalin, epinephrine, cortisol, and other adrenal hormones. These powerful substances raise our blood sugar levels and augment the power of our muscles. This reaction can be lifesaving in the short run, but when this state of stress response is sustained day after day, week after week, month after month, it can raise blood pressure and damage the arteries – ultimately contributing to a shorter life.
I believe that many of the stresses to which concerned vegans and vegetarians subject themselves – especially internalizing the suffering of the animals – can create a sustained burden of sadness and stress. When combined with dietary and other factors, years of emotional stress can inflict a heavy toll upon the entire body.
Did Jay Dinshah eat too much sugar? Did he consume too little vitamin B12 or let his antioxidant reserves fall too low? Did he consume excessive omega-6 fats or exercise too seldom? Perhaps, but his apparently early demise should serve as a strong reminder to us that we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed by the suffering, by the tragedy, and by the pain that awakens and motivates us in our work on behalf of a less violent world.
Being gentle with yourself and others, taking time to rejoice in life’s daily pleasures, regularly exercising your body, walking in nature, releasing stress in a healthy manner, and letting love, laughter, and gratitude flow through your daily thoughts and actions, are as essential for a long, healthy life as are fresh fruits and vegetables – probably even more so.
Beyond strict “medical” considerations, no one should believe or espouse that a vegan diet, in and of itself, is an iron-clad guarantee for immortality – or even for a Methuselah-like life span. Indeed, a case can be made that adopting a vegan diet in hopes of attaining immortality is, at its core, an essentially selfish – and ultimately non-vegan – desire that does not honor the flow and circle of life.
As people who revere life, we are here to give to life – and an inescapable part of such giving means making way for the younger people whose turn it is to inherit this Earth. All the while, we should play our parts fully and joyfully, in a manner that is appropriate for our age and stage in life – first as avid learners, then as vigorous doers, and finally, as wise and enthusiastic teachers and setters of example of a life of ahimsa.
Our fears of our own death should not be the driving force to adopt a vegan diet. The goal of our life should be more than not dying. The greatest tragedy is not living life to the fullest, not filling every moment with as much love and service as possible. But in giving that love and service, be sure not to take yourself too seriously – and please don’t forget to laugh (I’m sure Jay would agree).
Adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet and lifestyle is essentially a matter of the heart – and not simply in the cardiac context. There may indeed be benefits to your physical health from choosing to nourish your body on exclusively plant-based foods, and many people do come to a vegan diet through the door marked, “health.”
I believe, however, that in the long run, a person maintains a cruelty-free diet and lifestyle to honor the continual calling of their inner, higher heart – to live lives of ahimsa, by creating as little violence as possible in their lives and in the world around them. Jay Dinshah gifted us with the example of his life of dynamic harmlessness, and I believe, with the message conveyed by the manner of his passing. I know that my heart will always be grateful.
Thank you for visiting my website and for considering my professional services when you need reliable medical information in understandable terms. Contact me for a private consultation by e-mail, phone, or Skype.
To your good health and happiness,
Dr. Michael Klaper