To Your Health

Since heart disease runs in my family I have tried to "eat healthy" for several years. Recently I have been hearing about vitamin supplements that may help prevent heart disease. What are the best ones?

Q. Since heart disease runs in my family I have tried to "eat healthy" for several years. Recently I have been hearing about vitamin supplements that may help prevent heart disease. What are the best ones?

A. There are several vitamins that improve your chances of avoiding heart disease. The most recently publicized vitamins are folic acid, vitamin B-6, and vitamin B-12. Supplements of these three vitamins reduce the serum level of homocysteine, a toxic amino acid associated with increased risk of heart disease and several other diseases. With your family history of heart disease it would be prudent to go beyond these three vitamins and consider using a broader spectrum of nutritional supplements.

The June 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports on a 34-year review of literature on vitamins and chronic disease. Their conclusion is that inadequate intake of several vitamins is linked to increased incidence of several chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease. In addition to the three nutrients above, vitamin E, vitamin C, magnesium and co-enzyme Q-10 are prominently mentioned as the most helpful in preventing heart disease.

You may want to carry the supplement program even further. In 1996, Dr. Matthias Rath published a significant article in the Journal of Applied Nutrition on the ability of nutritional supplements alone to reduce plaque buildup in coronary arteries. Monitoring heart condition with a technique known as Ultra-Fast CT, which is common now but was new in 1996, he measured the amount of narrowing of coronary arteries in heart patients. The patients then started a rather heroic supplement program utilizing large but reasonable amounts of all the known nutrients that are capable of alleviating heart disease. He measured again after about two years and found that, after the initial six months, progression of coronary hardening virtually ceased.

Two aspects of Dr. Rath's study should be noted. First, he made no recommendations regarding diet or lifestyle other than taking the supplements. Americans, for better or worse, are a "pill-popping" society. We are much more likely to look for an easy solution to our health problems, such as taking a few pills, than to change diet or exercise, even when it is a life-or-death situation. It is, of course, best to exercise and eat healthy and to use appropriate food supplements to ensure the proper intake of the nutrients important to heart health.

Second, he used a large number of nutrients, rather than relying on only a few. The idea of teamwork among nutrients is well established, yet most nutritional research is still done on only one nutrient at a time. There are 16 vitamins plus several other nutrients in Dr. Rath's formula, in amounts roughly 10 times the RDA for vitamins except for vitamins A & D. For instance, the formula provided 2,700 mg of vitamin C, compared to the RDA of 60 mg per day. As Dr. Rath explained in the article, vitamin C is crucial for strengthening the wall of the coronary artery, so that plaque will have less opportunity to do the damage that allows cholesterol plaques to attach to the artery wall.

So, just because you have a genetic predisposition to heart disease does not mean you are powerless to alter your fate. You really can affect your heart health.

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