For years, my cholesterol levels had been very good. When I’d go in for my yearly check up and blood work, the number would always come back right in the 110 range. My physician and I were always pretty pleased with these results.
Then one year, seemingly out of the blue, my cholesterol shot up to 320.
No, that’s not a typo—in the space of 12 short months, my cholesterol reading went up by over 200 points.
I told my doctor “oh, there must have been something wrong with the test and my blood must have gotten mixed up with someone else’s”—kind of like the time on Seinfeld when the Mayor of New York’s blood accidentally combined with a sample of fat-filled frozen yogurt. My physician agreed with me and ordered a second test.
When the results came back, also at 320, we both started to get really concerned. What on Earth caused such an enormous jump in such a short time? Were my arteries quickly clogging up with plaque, and was I now a candidate for heart disease?
I had no family history of high cholesterol, and my low-density cholesterol (often called LDL, or “bad” cholesterol), high-density cholesterol (or HDL, or “good” cholesterol), and total readings were always so good. What the heck was going on?
My doctor wanted to check out my heart immediately, and so we set up appointments for an EKG and a stress test. Both came back negative, with no evidence of plaque build-up. He also ordered a blood test to see if I was pre-disposed to heart disease, which thankfully also came back as negative.
I called my brothers to double-check their cholesterol status, but they assured me that their tests always came back just fine. At the time, it was all a big mystery.
My physician, who was understandably very concerned with getting my cholesterol level down to a healthier number as soon as possible, wanted to put my on medication. He suggested that I start taking Lipitor or Zocor right away. I told him “no way.”
You see, my husband had taken these medications, and at the time, no one was really looking at their potential side effects. Doctors and researchers just knew they could lower cholesterol, and so they were prescribed all of the time without any real concern about what else they were capable of doing.
While on these drugs, my husband began experiencing weakness in his legs. He underwent a series of tests to see what might be wrong with him before a connection was made between his cholesterol medications and his frightening symptoms.
I had no intention of developing the same condition, so I asked my doctor if I could please try to get my cholesterol back down with diet and exercise. I read up on low fat/high cholesterol diets, and increased my workout schedule.
What I didn’t know at the time is that only about 15-20 percent of our cholesterol comes from our diets. The vast majority of our cholesterol is manufactured right inside the liver, and all of the non-fat munchies and time on the treadmill will have little effect. Most people don’t realize this, but it’s true.
My cholesterol was stubbornly staying at around the 300 range, and I was just as stubbornly insisting that there had to be an alternative to prescription medications. Right around this time, I had an appointment with my wonderful physician down in Tucson who has helped me so much with my health.
I mentioned to her that my cholesterol was through the roof, and that in spite of my mega-healthy low fat/non fat diet and exercise program, the numbers weren’t getting much lower. And on top of everything else, I was feeling really lousy.
In a very kind and diplomatic way, she basically told me that everything I was doing was wrong. That instead of taking most or all fats out of our diets, women actually need and require healthy forms of fat in order for good health.
In fact, she said, women require around 25 percent body fat in order to have enough estrogen in our systems to be healthy, and to stay in balance. Then my physician told me those words we women long to hear: “put that fat back in your diet!” Hooray! While I’m not saying it’s fine to go out and eat all the Big Macs you can handle, it was nice not to sweat the occasional bowl of Haagen Dazs or serving of French fries.
Then my Tucson physician said something that completely blew me away. She felt that my skyrocketing cholesterol levels were the results of my hormones being completely off balance. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I could understand the night sweats and hot flashes and everything being caused by hormones, but cholesterol?
As it turns out, she was absolutely right. By working with her and getting on the right medications to get my hormones back in balance, the cholesterol readings began to finally fall. Within a couple of years, my numbers were in the 180 range. Not as low as they were before, but certainly not as frightening as the 320 results I was used to seeing.
What was really exciting is that my LDL or “bad” cholesterol level went down tremendously once my hormones were back in check, and my ratios of HDL to LDL are also very good.
My next step is to get a CT scan of my heart to check for plaque. I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic, and it seems like this is probably the best way to check for any build-up.
So what’s going on with you? Are your cholesterol readings suddenly out of whack? What have you done to successfully lower them? Do you know any relatively young women who have had issues with heart disease? Please drop me a line and let me know your thoughts on these matters—I look forward to hearing from you!
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