Category Archives: Heart Disease

What causes heart disease part XXXIV (part thirty-four)

9th August 2017

Looking for the contradictions

Here was my mantra. ‘If I can find an absolute contradiction to any hypothesis, I shall discard it, and start again.’ I have to tell you that this shiny, bright eyed scientific idealism has had to bite the dust. Primarily, because it can be very difficult to know what a contradiction looks like – for sure.

If Newton had found that every so often apples did not fall from a tree, instead they accelerated upwards and into space, the theory of gravity would not have been born – because it would have been wrong. If your hypothesis is that all swans are white, then the finding of a single black swan immediately negates your hypothesis.

However, in science, refutations are rarely so clear cut. In biological science, there are so many things going on, so many variables to consider, that we are more in the world of weather forecasting, rather than Newtonian physics. There are few absolutes, no completely hard and fast rules.

This, of course, has allowed those who believe in the ‘cholesterol hypothesis’ to shape shift, twist and turn, and adapt the hypothesis to fit any facts. Never, ever, can they be pinned down. Never, ever, can the hypothesis be refuted by any single fact, or even a combination of facts. Believe me, I have tried. It is like attempting to nail mercury, firmly, to the table.

Take the hypothesis that a raised cholesterol level causes heart disease. Already, I imagine, you can see this fragmenting before your very eyes. What do you mean by a high cholesterol level. Total cholesterol? Low density lipoprotein (LDL) level? The ratio of LDL to HDL? Are you looking at LDL-C or LDL-P. Are you considering VLDL levels, what about oxidised LDL, or small dense LDL, or light and fluffy LDL.

That, without trying, is nine ‘cholesterol’ variables. And the possible combination of nine variable is nine factorial. This allows 362,880 possible combinations of ‘cholesterol’ that could be tested. In truth, I didn’t really try very hard there with ‘cholesterol’. I could add in at least sixteen variants of HDL (that I am aware of), including apoA-1 Milano (the super-protective form of HDL – allegedly). Which give us another sixteen ‘cholesterol variable).

9 + 16 = 25 variables (assuming they act independently)

The factorial of 25 is 1.55×1025   or: 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000.00

As you can see, there is not the remotest possibility, ever, of trying to work out how all the forms of ‘cholesterol’ may interact. Even if you created theoretical models and fed them into a computer, you would be there for a very, very, long time.

Equally, there is no possibility of refuting the causal impact of any single cholesterol factor. And, if you did manage to pin anything down, the broader issue of ‘definition’ will simply be altered.

Just trying to look at the apparently simple concept of a high total cholesterol level itself. You would think it would be possible to say that there is an average level, a high level and a low level. This would allow you to say that the average total cholesterol level of everyone in the world (who has had their cholesterol level tested) is five point three (5.3mmol/l). [I just made this figure up]

Thus, anyone above this figure could be said to have a cholesterol level above average. Or high. And vice-versa. Just as you could measure the height of everyone in the world, and find an average. However, this cannot be done. Well, it could be done, but it has not been done, and I suspect it never will be done. Because, in the case of cholesterol levels, average is most definitely not considered ‘normal.’

Here, for example, is what is said about cholesterol levels on the Benecol website:

‘The government recommends that healthy adults should have a total cholesterol level below 5 mmol/L. In the UK, three out of five adults have a total cholesterol level of 5 mmol/L or above, and the average cholesterol level is about 5.7 mmol/L, which can be a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease.’1

Thus, the average cholesterol in the UK is not normal. It is ‘high’ enough that it is a risk factor for heart disease. So, average is not normal. Is 5mmol/l normal? Well, Heart UK (The UK cholesterol charity – funded almost entirely by the pharmaceutical industry), makes this statement:

‘Total Cholesterol (TC) – this is the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. Ideally it should be 5 mmol/L or less.’

Which would suggest that anything below 5mmol/l is fine and normal? But if you have diabetes, you should have a cholesterol below 4.0mmol/. Diabetes UK lists the following blood lipid (cholesterol) targets as a guide for people with diabetes:

  • Total cholesterol: under 4.0 mmol/l
  • LDL levels: below 2.0 mmol/l2

Which means that four is actually better than five – thus five is high? And if you have had a heart attack it is recommended to get cholesterol levels below 4.0mmol/l. Ergo, a level of 5.0mmol/l must be causing the developing of heart disease. So, five is not actually normal. It is high.

The general consensus, though never very clearly stated, is that, whatever your level of cholesterol, you will gain benefit from lowering it. Which, logically, means that any level of cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease. Thus, there is no optimal level. I have seen it argued that the optimal level for cholesterol is 1.5 mmol/l. 3

Setting the level at this point means that, apart from a vanishingly small number of people, everyone in the western world has a ‘high’ cholesterol. Therefore, you can never argue that a high cholesterol does not cause heart disease, because everyone who suffers from heart disease has a high cholesterol level. In contrast, no-one with a ‘normal’ cholesterol level suffers from heart disease.

With cholesterol levels, we have the following situation:


High                                                                                           = high

Average                                                                                     = high

Low                                                                                            = high

Very low                                                                                    = high

Very, very low                                                                          = high

So low that you cannot find anyone with this level*        = normal

When confronted with logic like this, the cholesterol hypothesis is perfectly protected from attack. It is a non-refutable hypothesis. As Karl Popper said, if you cannot construct your hypothesis in such a way that it can be refuted, it is not science a.k.a. nonsense.

Which is why, in the end, I decided on another approach entirely. Replace the cholesterol hypothesis with something that actually fits the facts without the need for endless distortion of facts, and reality. Also, to try to create a hypothesis whereby data could be found to refute it.

At present, just to repeat myself for the final time, the cholesterol hypothesis is that a high cholesterol level causes CVD. This cannot be refuted, because there is no such thing as a normal cholesterol level. All levels are high. Res Ipsa Loquitir.




*or at least, so few people exist that no study could ever be done

What causes heart disease part thirty-two (XXXII)

Stress and heart disease

I have drifted around the issue of stress and cardiovascular disease (CVD) for some time. For many years I pursued the idea that stress was the cause of CVD. Indeed, I had it all worked out, fitting all facts about CVD within this model. But…

I was at a conference in Saudi Arabia a few years ago, giving my ‘How stress causes CVD’ lectures, to great acclaim, or so I thought. However, Paul Rosch, who was also attending said to me, one evening at dinner. ‘It is all very well to show that stress is associated with heart disease, but you have not really established a mechanism.’

This, I realised, was true. I could show things such as the fact that severe depression can cause insulin resistance, even type II diabetes. Also, that depression is associated with a much higher rate of CVD, as are almost all metal health diseases. On average, someone with a mental illness can expect to die around twenty years earlier than those in the surrounding population.

I could show that psychosocial stress lead to Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal-axis [HPA-axis] dysfunction, which then drove the metabolic syndrome, with a much higher rate of CVD. The HPA-axis is the conductor of the entire ‘stress’ system.

At one stage I became very interested in spinal cord injury, and CVD. I discover that, the level the spinal cord injury occurred, made very significant differences to the rate of CVD. This, in turn, seemed almost entirely dependent on whether the autonomic nervous system was spared, or damaged.

The autonomic sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system co-ordinates the ‘flight or fight’, stress, response. It runs down the spinal column before fanning out to link up to all of the organs in the body. You have little conscious control over it, which is why it is often called the ‘unconscious’ nervous system.

The sympathetic part of the autonomic system does such things as, speeding up the heart rate, constricting the bladder, redirecting blood to the muscles. Also stimulating the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, to increase blood clotting and raise blood sugar levels – all good things in preparation for a fight.

I figured, along with many others, that if the fight or flight response was chronically activated, this would have severe and potentially damaging effects on the body. A chronic ‘dysfunctional stress response’ if you like. It appeared that much of the damage caused by a dysfunctional stress response centred around the stress hormone cortisol.

This idea was further strengthened by the looking at Cushing’s disease, a condition whereby the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol – for various reasons. People with Cushing’s disease have a spectrum of biochemical and physiological abnormalities, from raised blood pressure to severe insulin resistance, raised blood clotting factors, and suchlike.

Those with Cushing’s almost always develop the metabolic syndrome, and often frank type II diabetes. They have a vastly increased risk of dying of CVD. Around 600% (relative increase in risk). Last week I was sent a paper, looking at Cushing’s, called ‘Markers of atherosclerosis in patients with Cushing’s syndrome: a meta-analysis of literature studies.’

The authors found: ‘Cushing’s disease is associated with an increased intima-media thickness (IMT), higher prevalence of carotid plaques, and lower flow-mediated dilation as compared with controls. These data consistently suggest the need for a strict monitoring of early signs of subclinical atherosclerosis in Cushing’s patients.’1

In fact, the prevalence of atherosclerotic plaques was 988% higher (relative risk), than in controls. This is, basically, a ten-fold increase in the risk of plaques, and that moves Cushing’s Disease from association to causation.

I have also looked at people who used steroids for various medical conditions and found that they had a greatly increased risk of CVD. It is estimated that regular steroids use increases CVD risk by around 400% (relative increase in risk). For those who do not know, steroids are often called corticosteroids, because they all used cortisol as the building block. [Cortisol is also called a ‘steroid’ hormone].


PREDNISOLONE – A commonly prescribed ‘steroid’

Whilst everything was, of course, rather more complex that this, with far more strands of evidence to gather together. I had worked my way towards a pretty clear causal chain that looked something like this:

Negative psychological and/or physical stress → HPA-axis dysfunction → abnormal cortisol secretion → metabolic syndrome/type II diabetes → atherosclerosis → increased risk of CVD

Now, I think that this model is still perfectly usable, and it explains a lot. However, although I drew a simple arrow from metabolic syndrome/type II diabetes → atherosclerosis, this is the bit that Paul Rosch was talking about. What is actually happening here? It is all very well to state that something causes something else, but you still need to explain how.

I realised that I did not know how, other than in general terms. I also realised that there were many other things that ‘cause’ CVD, that are not stress related e.g. smoking, omeprazole, Kawasaki’s disease, air pollution, Avastin etc. etc. How could all these be fitted into that one small arrow. That is when I ripped up the stress hypothesis, to start again. Pretty painful, but necessary.



What causes heart disease – part thirty one (XXXI)

What is the final event?

(The upside down*)

The final event in most heart attacks, and strokes, is the development of a large, and often fatal, blood clot. If this happens in an artery in the heart, a coronary artery, it cuts off blood supply to an area of heart muscle and can lead to a myocardial infarction (MI) [myocardium = heart muscle, infarction = death of tissue due to lack of oxygen].

There is a related, but different mechanism of action, in most, strokes. In this case a blood clot that has formed in an artery in the neck (carotid artery), breaks off and travels to the brain where it gets stuck, blocking an artery. This leads to a cerebral infarction. There are other forms of stroke, with other causes, but this is the most common.

These are generally accepted models, and for the sake of brevity, it is also the model I am using here. Although I accept that it is not that simple. For example, you can have an MI with no blood clot found. Here, from a paper entitled: ‘Acute myocardial infarction with no obstructive coronary atherosclerosis: mechanisms and management’:

‘Myocardial infarction (MI) with no obstructive coronary atherosclerosis (MINOCA) is a syndrome with different causes. Its prevalence ranges between 5 and 25% of all MIs.’1

A heart attack with no blood clot. In truth, I think this can be easily explained, within the ‘obstructive’ model, but it would take too long for this blog. I will cover it at some point.

Anyway, to get back on track. It is generally accepted that the final event in cardiovascular disease is the formation of a large blood clot. This is the thing that causes both fatal, and non-fatal, strokes and heart attacks. Which is why atherosclerosis, as a disease, is often referred to as atherothrombosis. The idea being that atherosclerotic plaques gradually build up, over decades. In the final stage, the plaque ‘ruptures’ triggering the formation of a large and deadly clot.

The suggestion here, never ever explicitly stated, is that we have two different processes in operation. Plaque formation, then the blood clot. Or maybe you could look at this as one process, in two parts. Plaque growth, then plaque rupture – causing thrombus formation.

However, it is perfectly possible for thrombi to form with no underlying plaque, so the two processes need not be associated with each other. People with Hughes’ syndrome, for example, can die of strokes and heart attacks quite suddenly, caused by blood clots, with no plaque to be seen. [Hughes syndrome causes the blood to be highly likely to clot – hypercoagulable].

Which leaves the question hanging somewhat. Do we have one process – or two? I believe that the main reason for using the term atherothrombosis, is because this allows mainstream thinking to draw everything together as different manifestations of the same underlying process. Raised cholesterol causes plaques, these rupture, then a clot develops (which would not have formed had the plaque not been there). This allows clear wiggle room, but at some point you must decide, one process or two. This is not quantum physics.

In my world, it is far simpler. There is only one process. Atherosclerotic plaque are simply blood clots, in various stages of growth and/or repair. Plaque growth represents the formation of a new blood clot, at the same point, which is not cleared away properly. The final ‘thrombotic’ event is just a big enough clot forming to do real damage.

The first time I started to think about this seriously, was when I was reading a paper called ‘A Definition of Advanced Types of Atherosclerotic Lesions and a Histological Classification of Atherosclerosis. A Report From the Committee on Vascular Lesions of the Council on Arteriosclerosis, American Heart Association.’ The things I do for fun … clearly, I am just a geek.

Anyway, this paper rambled on and on, and on. Until, whilst propping my eyelids open, my interest suddenly sharpened as I came across the section on the definition of Type V(a) atherosclerotic plaques – don’t ask. For those who enjoy a bit of scientific jargon, here it comes. If you don’t care for jargon, just look at the text I have put in bold at the end.

‘Sequential histological studies of the lesions of large populations indicate that reparative connective tissue forms in and around regions of the intima in which large accumulations of extracellular lipid (lipid cores) disarrange or obliterate the normal cell and intercellular matrix structure. Sometimes the new fibrous tissue accounts for more of the thickness of the lesion than does the underlying lipid accumulation.

The new tissue consists of substantial increases in collagen and smooth muscle cells rich in rough-surfaced endoplasmic reticulum. In cases in which this tissue is particularly thick, some or much of it may be the remnant of thrombi that were incorporated and organized. Capillaries at the margins of the lipid core may be larger and more numerous than in type IV lesions, and they may also be present in the newly formed tissue. Lymphocytes, monocyte-macrophages, and plasma cells are frequently associated with the capillaries, and microhemorrhages may be present around them.

Type Va lesions may be multilayered: several lipid cores, separated by thick layers of fibrous connective tissue, are stacked irregularly one above the other. The term multilayered fibroatheroma can be applied to this morphology. The lipid core that is deepest and closest to the media may have formed first. Mechanical forces may play a role in the modeling of such lesions.

Additional lipid cores in locations and planes different from the first could be induced as asymmetric vascular narrowing and changes in lumen configuration modify hemodynamic and tensile forces, creating a redistribution of the regions of predisposition for lesion formation.

The architecture of some multilayered fibroatheromas could also be explained by repeated disruptions of the lesion surface, hematomas, and thrombotic deposits. Organization (fibrosis) of hematomas and thrombi could be followed by renewed accumulation of macrophage foam cells and extracellular lipid between the newly formed fibrotic layer and the endothelial surface.’ 2

In layman’s terms what does it mean? It means that a number of plaques look exactly as if they were created by the repeated formation of blood clots, one on top of another. A concept further reinforced, when the paper looked again at thrombosis.


‘It has been reported that advanced atherosclerotic lesions containing thrombi or the remnants of thrombi are frequent from the fourth decade of life on. In 1975 Chandler and Pope compiled and reviewed studies that reported the frequency and nature of lesions with incorporated thrombi.

In a recent study of a population aged 30 to 59 years, 38% of persons with advanced lesions in the aorta had thrombi on the surface of a lesion. These thrombi ranged in size from minimal (microscopic) to grossly visible deposits, and some consisted of stratified layers of different ages. Immunohistochemistry revealed wavy bandlike deposits related to fibrin within the advanced lesions of an additional 29% of persons. Because of their structure, these were thought to represent the remnants of old thrombi. Similar data were reported by other authors.

The fissures and hematomas that underlie thrombotic deposits in many cases may recur, and small thrombi may reform many times. Repeated incorporation of small recurrent hematomas and thrombi into a lesion over months or years contributes to gradual narrowing of the arterial lumen. Some thrombi continue to enlarge and occlude the lumen of a medium-sized artery within hours or days.’

Perhaps the key sentence here, from my point of view, is the following:

‘Repeated incorporation of small recurrent hematomas and thrombi into a lesion over months or years contributes to gradual narrowing of the arterial lumen.’

Here, right here, is proof of the concept that plaques definitely do grow through repeated thrombus formation at the same point on the artery. Do all plaques do this? My own belief is that they do, but in many cases the repair mechanisms and other factors disrupt a clear picture of layered plaque growth. Essentially, the core of the plaque turns into mush (known as a lipid core) which obliterates evidence of how the plaque actually grew.

What else supports the idea that plaques are, in reality, blood clots? Well, very early on in their development, rather than in the third or fourth decades of life, you can find high levels of fibrin and fibrinogen, which are key components of blood clots. Here from a paper ‘Lipids and plasma fibrinogen: early and late composition of the atherosclerotic plaque.’

The precursor of large fibrous plaques appears to be the gelatinous lesion, which is characterized by oedema, accumulation of large amounts of low density lipoproteins and fibrinogen in the expanded interstitial fluid space, deposition of fibrin, and smooth muscle cell proliferation. It is postulated that deposition of fibrin may be a key event, stimulating smooth muscle cell proliferation by providing a scaffold for migration, a source of fibrin degradation products which are mitogenic, and binding thrombin. Fibrin may also be a factor in lipid accumulation because it binds lipoprotein (a) with high affinity, and may also bind low density lipoprotein.’3

In short, early plaques contain a lot of fibrin (key component of a blood clot), also lipoprotein (a), which is LDL with a different protein attached. Fibrin binds to Lp(a) forming very stable, and difficult to remove, blood clots. So, it is not just in type V(a) plaques that we find evidence of blood clotting. We find it very early on as well.

Sorry, If I am getting a bit jargonified at this point – if that is indeed a word. But I am aware that some highly trained scientific people do cast their eyes over this blog, and I do not want to make this too broad brush. Also, here, I am discussing the very core of my ideas about CVD, and I want to be as accurate as I can be. Equally, I do not want to put people off by delving too deep.

So, at this point, I shall only look at one more highly scientific study, which I think is important. One of the things I always tend to do, is to look at extremes. By which I mean populations with the highest rates of CVD, or medical conditions that accelerate CVD, and suchlike.

I believe answers are to be found at the extremes. To that end I became very interested in people who received heart transplants. For they, unfortunately, develop atherosclerosis at a very high rate. It tends to be called vasculopathy, as it is not exactly the same as atherosclerosis, but that may simply be a result of how fast it develops.

Cardiac allograft vasculopathy (CAV) is the major cause of long-term mortality after heart transplant (HTx). Cardiac allograft vasculopathy has heterogeneous pathologic features characterized by vascular wall inflammation, fibrous intimal thickening, and atherosclerosis.’

I believe that, because it is developing quickly, it is possible to see ‘plaques’ forming and growing in a way that is very difficult in the rest of the population. Or, to put it another way, we have an accelerated model of CVD, where things are revealed that may normally be hidden.

Here is the key section from the paper: ‘Repeated episodes of thrombosis as a potential mechanism of plaque progression in cardiac allograft vasculopathy.’


In conclusion, our observations demonstrate that a finding of ML (multi-layered) appearance, which may be indicative of repeated episodes of mural thrombosis, is not infrequent in asymptomatic cardiac transplant recipients. These findings may contribute to progression of cardiac allograft vascolopathy (CAV). The current study gives new insight into the potential role of coronary thrombosis in plaque progression in CAV.’4

Once again, repeated thrombus formation and plaque growth, causing multi-layered plaque progression.

I shall finish here by quoting myself in a previous blog:

‘Interestingly, at one point Pfizer also started to promote atherothrombosis as the cause of heart disease. For sentimental reasons I have kept hold of an educational booklet produced by Pfizer in 1992. On page four it states:

Several features of mature plaques, such as their multi-layered pattern, suggest that the platelet aggregation and thrombus formation are key elements in the progression of atherosclerosis. Platelets are also known to provide a rich source of growth factors, which can stimulate plaque development.

Given the insidious nature of atherosclerosis, it is vital to consider the role of platelets and thrombosis in this process.’ [Well, quite]

There is little point in referencing this document, as I probably have the only copy left in existence. It is called ‘Pathologic triggers. New insights into cardiovascular risk.’ Produced by Medi Cine Inc. For Pfizer Inc Copyright 1992, All rights reserved etc. etc.

It is interesting that when Pfizer did not have a statin, they were looking away from cholesterol as a cause of cardiovascular disease. It will come as no surprise to you that this was not through some altruistic attempt to discover the truth about the true cause of heart disease. It was to help market their drug doxazosin (a BP lowering drug) which had some additional anticoagulant properties.’

Of course, I have not answered all questions here. But I wanted to give you some insight as to my core thinking on CVD. Having jumped around for years I decided to start at the end, the final blood clot, and then worked backwards.

Was it possible, I asked myself, that blood clotting was not just responsible for the final clot, but also for the entire process of atherosclerosis? I believe that the evidence is out there, and clearly supportive, if you choose to look at it this way round.

I suppose you could say that I do not believe in atherothrombosis. I believe in thromboatherosis (you’re right, I just made that word up). In thromboatherosis, plaques start, and grow, through repeated thrombus formation at the same spot in an artery. In the end, a clot gets big enough to cause a stroke or heart attack. Sometimes the clot can be big enough to kill, without any underlying plaque, but normally it will form over an already existing plaque – where plaque rupture can be the trigger.

In short, there is only one process in CVD. It is the development of atherosclerotic plaques through repeated thrombus formation, followed by the final thrombus formation. As you can see this is actually very close to mainstream thinking. The only difference is that you have to flip your thinking through one hundred and eighty degrees, to see it upside down.






*for those who enjoyed Stranger Things

P.S. Pop quiz. Why do plaques never develop in the heart itself? Here the pressure is highest, damage to endothelium must be greatest and yet, and yet, no plaques – ever.

What causes heart disease part XVIII


For those who have read my endless series of blogs on cardiovascular disease, you may know exactly where I am going at this point.

Some time ago, Pfizer were developing a drug to treat angina. It blocked an enzyme called phosphodiesterase type-5. [Although I believe that its exact mechanism of action was not known at first]. To put it another way, this drug was a phosphodiesterase type-5 inhibitor (PDE5i).

The moment Pfizer found out what enzyme this drug blocked, they tried to patent the pathway that blocked this enzyme. Pharmaceutical companies trying to patent biological pathways. Perhaps I should try to patent the Krebs cycle, and charge everyone on the planet for having such a thing. Kerchingggg!

‘The U.S. patent office appears to have granted Pfizer a patent covering any drug that blocks this enzyme, meaning that it can sue all of its potential competitors.’1

Luckily, this time they were rebuffed.

Anyhoo, back to the drug. During phase one clinical trials, where humans are given the drug for the first time to see what effects it may have, many of the volunteers were hanging on to their medication, rather than handing them back. This was very unusual. Almost unknown in fact.

When researchers went out to find out why this was happening it was discovered, not quite sure who admitted to this, that sildenafil/Viagra improved erectile function. Thus, Viagra, the first PDE5i, was born. The first drug that worked simply and effectively to improve erectile dysfunction (ED). As for treating angina… that piffling indication was rapidly shelved as the dollar signs appeared in the sky above Pfizer HQ. Sex, as they say, sells.

In truth, it is actually one of the best drugs ever. Not only does is treat ED, but it can also be used by mountaineers to prevent pulmonary oedema (fluid filling up in the lungs), which is one of the major symptoms of altitude sickness. It does this by reducing the blood pressure in the pulmonary vessels (blood vessels in the lungs).

To explain a little further. If you climb very high, and the oxygen level drops, the heart pumps blood harder and harder through the lungs to get as much oxygen as possible into the system. This can result in fluid leaking out of the vessels and into the lung tissue, so they fill up with fluid. At which point you effectively drown, so you die. Viagra stops this happening, by lowering the blood pressure in the lungs.

Unsurprisingly, Viagra is used to treat people who have pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the blood vessels in the lungs) at sea level. It is sold under the name Ravatio, for this indication – but we know that it is just Viagra. In addition, Viagra can be used to treat Raynaud’s disease, where the small blood vessels supplying the fingers and toes constrict, leading to painful cold fingers.

So, here we have a drug that can treat angina, pulmonary hypertension, erectile dysfunction and Raynaud’s disease at the same time. Thus, you can have great sex at twenty thousand feet above sea level, not get chest pain, or breathless, and stay warm at the same time. What more could a man ask for?

How does it do all these things? The answer is that it increases Nitric Oxide (NO) synthesis in endothelial cells. When it does this in the penis, it stimulates erections. In the heart, it opens up coronary arteries. In the lungs, it dilates the blood vessels, in fingers and toes it opens up arteries. So, all of the many different effects, are all due to exactly the same process – increased NO synthesis. Viagra also lowers blood pressure – as you would expect.

At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I talked about this in my book ‘Doctoring Data,’ under the heading ‘Viagra and the drugs of unintended consequences.’ I posed the question. ‘If we were to prescribe Viagra as an antihypertensive, which is entirely possible, and it were found to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, which effect do you think would be responsible for the benefit? The blood pressure lowering effect, or the anticoagulant effects? Or something else.

Since I wrote those words, someone has actually looked at the impact of PDE5is on cardiovascular disease. Researchers at Manchester University, in the UK, studied the use of Viagra in people with diabetes – who often have erectile dysfunction. Here is what they found:

‘Viagra could prevent heart attacks, according to research. Patients taking the male impotence drug were found to have a lower risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart failure than those not on the medication. The lead scientist told the Daily Express the findings are “incredibly exciting”.2

The research paper was published in ‘Heart’, a BMJ journal. Actually, this paper was published last year, but only seems to have hit the press in the last few days. I spotted it in the Times a few days ago.

Here are the main results (for those readers who like their statistics)

‘Results: Compared with non-users, men who are prescribed PDE5is (Viagra, Cialis and the likemy words) (n=1359) experienced lower percentage of deaths during follow-up (19.1% vs 23.8%) and lower risk of all-cause mortality (unadjusted HR=0.69 (95% CI: 0.64 to 0.79); p<0.001)). The reduction in risk of mortality (HR=0.54 (0.36 to 0.80); p=0.002) remained after adjusting for age, estimated glomerular filtration rate, smoking status, prior cerebrovascular accident (CVA) hypertension, prior myocardial infarction (MI), systolic blood pressure, use of statin, metformin, aspirin and β-blocker medication. PDE5i users had lower rates of incident MI (incidence rate ratio (0.62 (0.49 to 0.80), p<0.0001) with lower mortality (25.7% vs 40.1% deaths; age-adjusted HR=0.60 (0.54 to 0.69); p=0.001) compared with non-users within this subgroup.’3

For those who don’t like their statistics quite as much as me (shame on you). I shall attempt to simplify.

  • Over a seven year period, those men taking PDE5is (Viagra Cialis and the like) had a 4.7% reduction in overall mortality – compared to men who did not.
  • Those taking Viagra were 38% less likely to have a myocardial infarction
  • If you did have a myocardial infarction, those who were taking PDE5is had a 25.7% death rate. Those who were not taking PDE5is had a 40.1% death rate. So, if you were unfortunate to have a heart attack, you were 14.6% less likely (absolute risk reduction) to die if you were taking PDE5is.

Or, to shorten this even more

  • 4.7% reduction in overall mortality
  • 38% reduction in MI (relative risk reduction)
  • 14.6% reduction in death after an MI

Whilst the first figure of a 4.7% reduction in overall mortality may not sound terrible exciting, it knocks all antihypertensives and cholesterol lowering medication into a cocked hat. Even if you add them together and multiply by two – on their best day. Because 4.7% is an absolute risk reduction. [Absolute mortality reduction in the Heart Protection Study (HPS), the most positive statin trial, was 1.8% over five years]

The benefits of Viagra are even more startling when it comes to having a heart attack (MI). The current ‘gold standard’ treatment of choice is Primary Percutaneous Coronary Intervention (PCI), which basically means popping a stent into a blocked coronary artery to open it up again.

It has been estimated that PCI results in a 2% absolute reduction in mortality4. On the other hand, Viagra gives you, very nearly, a 15% reduction in overall mortality. Or, to put it another way, Viagra may be seven and a half times as effective as PCI.

But it does not end here. it was also found that men with heart failure were 36% less likely to die if they took a PDE5i.

‘In the other subgroups, there was an inverse association between PDE5i use and all-cause mortality. Those with a recorded history of congestive cardiac failure, TIA and PVD had 36%, 40% and 34% lower risk, respectively.’ [A TIA is a transient Ischaemic attack/small stroke. PVD is peripheral vessel disease.]

Congestive cardiac failure is usually shortened to heart failure. [This 36% is a relative risk reduction, and I could not work out what the absolute risk was from the paper. I am probably too thick].

The effect on heart failure is almost certainly because another benefit of increasing NO is that you increase ‘angiogenesis’, otherwise known as, ‘the creation of new blood vessels’. If a coronary artery does completely block, this often leads to heart failure, as not enough oxygen and other nutrients can get into the heart muscle downstream.

However, if collateral blood vessels develop, the blood will be directed around the blockage and back into the artery downstream, through these newly created blood vessels. Although collateral circulation is not as effective as a fully patent coronary artery, it will create a significant flow of oxygen and nutrients once more. Thus, heart failure will be greatly improved.

Louis Ignarro, who identified nitric oxide (NO) as the key chemical messenger that dilated blood vessels, and won the Nobel Prize for doing so, decided to start treating people who have end stage heart failure with l-arginine. He had been looking for a substance that would, naturally increase NO, and found l-arginine did the job best. He has had some amazing results. Perhaps he should start using Viagra instead.

This study, I must add, was not interventional, it was observational. However, it strongly supports the hypothesis that increasing NO synthesis is just about the most important thing you can do. If you want to avoid dying from CVD.

Do I think everyone should take Viagra? Well, if you have heart failure, diabetes and a high risk of CVD – probably. Will you get a doctor to prescribe it for you, for CVD prevention? Absolutely no chance. Will anyone ever fund a study on this? With the drugs now off patent – no chance.

Oh, the joys of modern medicine. Unless someone does a controlled randomised double blind study on a medication, doctors will not prescribe – are not allowed to prescribe. However, virtually the only people with the money to do such studies are pharmaceutical companies. If the patent life of a drug has expired, no money can be made. So, no trial will be done. So, drugs that are almost certainly beneficial wither on the vine.

Unusually, for me, I do not blame the pharmaceutical companies for this. They are not charities. They need to make money or they die. You cannot expect them to spend hundreds of millions on a clinical study, without any possible means of gaining a return on their investment. We live in a funny old world.

In the meantime, look to other things that can increase NO synthesis. L-arginine/L-citrulline does this. Potassium does this. Sunlight does this. Exercise does this. Meditation does this. Vitamin D does this, as does Vitamin C. What are you waiting for? Go for a walk in the sun and eat an orange – you will live forever.






What causes heart disease part XXVI

[Hold the front page]

Last night I watched a you tube presentation which completely astonished me. It was given by Professor Salim Yusuf, who is as mainstream as mainstream can possibly be. Here, from Wikipedia:

‘Salim Yusuf (born November 26, 1952) is an Indian-born Canadian physician, the Marion W. Burke Chair in Cardiovascular Disease at McMaster University Medical School and currently the President of the World Heart Federation, a world-renowned cardiologist and epidemiologist. In 2001, he published a landmark study that proved the benefits of clopidogrel in acute coronary syndrome without ST elevation.

Here, from Forbes magazine in 2012:

‘McMaster University’s Salim Yusuf has tied for second place in the annual ranking of the “hottest” scientific researchers, according to Thomson Reuter’s Science Watch. Yusuf was a co-author of 13 of the most cited papers in 2011. Only one other researcher, genomic pioneer Eric Lander of the Broad Institute of MIT, had more highly-cited papers than Yusuf.’1

On February the 12th he gave a presentation at a cardiology conference in Davos, Switzerland which can be seen on YouTube. In this presentation, he makes the following points:

  1. Saturated fat does raise LDL, a bit, but has no effect on CVD – maybe slightly beneficial. Monounsaturated fats are slightly beneficial. Polyunsaturated fats are neutral.
  2. Carbohydrate intake is most closely associated with CVD
  3. Fruit and vegetable intake has little or no impact on CVD – nor does fish intake [He wonders where the five portions of fruit and vegetable intake recommendations actually came from]. Vegetables in particular have no benefit.
  4. Legumes – beans and suchlike – are beneficial.
  5. The recommendations on salt intake are completely wrong, and set far too low. For those who do not have high blood pressure, low salt intake increase mortality. On the other hand, high salt intake does no harm.
  6. He recommends higher potassium intake.
  7. He criticizes Ancel Keys and lauds Nina Teicholz [Author of big fat surprise].

Well, good for him. It seems to have taken him a long time to get there, but he did in the end. Of course, mainstream medicine will remain in shocked silence, so you will likely hear nothing of this in the mainstream media. But, hey, you get to see it here. Perhaps someone would like to send this presentation to the BHF and the AHA and ask them for a comment?

The YouTube presentation is here:



What causes heart disease part XXV


I have been studying cardiovascular disease for well over thirty years now. I have come across a million different hypotheses about what causes it. There is almost no foodstuff, vitamin, infectious agent, chemical compound, atomic element or activity [lack of, or excess] that has not been proposed at some point.

Many of them can look very promising, and the underlying hypothesis is often elegant – very elegant indeed. But what you must do with any hypothesis is to hold it close to the unforgiving flame of mortality data, and see if it is tempered by the heat – or simply melts.

I resolved very early on in my long and winding study on cardiovascular disease that any hypothesis had to explain everything – not just some things. For example, as almost everyone in the entire world knows a raised cholesterol level is considered the most important cause of cardiovascular disease. But it is exceedingly easy to find facts that seem to completely contradict this.

Here, for example, is a little graph looking at only two countries. It compares the death rate from heart disease in Russia and Switzerland, in men under the age of sixty-five relation to the average cholesterol level in those two countries.


in Russia, with an average cholesterol level of 5.1mmol/l (197mg/dl) had a death rate 834% higher than that in Switzerland, which had an average cholesterol level of 6.4mmol/l (248mg/dl). Yes, this graph is the right way around. Yes, these data come from the World Health Organisation, and can be found on the British Heart Foundation (BHF) website. These particular statistics are now very deeply buried, but can still be found here:

I sometimes wonder if anyone at the BHF actually looks at these data, but that is a question for another day. Of course, when presented with facts like this, the dismissals. and creation of ad-hoc hypotheses rapidly reach into the sky. The word ‘paradox’ will be used pretty heavily, that’s always a good, temporary, escape route. In reality these two figures represent a full-blown black swan. But, hey, facts are slippery things.

Anyway, in my quest to explain everything about heart disease, perhaps the hardest single thing to explain is the fact that the rate of cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) has been going down in pretty much every single Western country for decades. I would say ‘first world’ country, but my son (a geography graduate) informs me that this terminology is now virtually barred for being racist. I shall be considered an ancient, prejudiced reactionary for using such a term.

So, I will say, Western Europe, North American, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and suchlike.

Now, the decline in CVD did not start at the same time, in all these countries. At this point I will make myself a hostage to fortune and make some sweeping statements. The rate of CVD peaked first in the US, in the late 1950s and has been falling since. It peaked next in Finland in the 1960s. In most of the other countries CVD peaked in the 1970s, before falling. It is impossible to say that there was a uniform worldwide effect. [Today, some countries are on the way up the mortality curve e.g. China and India].

However, I will make the general statement that CVD has been falling in most ‘first world’ countries for decades. This started long before any effective medical interventions were available. In the US, in the 1950s, there were no effective blood pressure lowering agents, no stents, no CABG, no clot busters…. Nothing really.

Possibly the greatest single factor has been the reduction in smoking. At the end of the second world war virtually all men smoked. Nearly 90% in the UK in the 1950s. Since that time the number of smokers has fallen, and fallen.

In addition to this, during the 60s, 70s, 80s and onwards, medical interventions have also greatly improved. In-hospital survival from a heart attack or stroke has improved almost year on year. The figures are complex, but around 60% of those admitted to hospital with a heart attack used to die – it is now around 30%, maybe less.

Some of this is due to the fact that ‘strict bed rest’ following a heart attack, the key medical intervention for decades, was abandoned. A piece of medical mismanagement that killed millions and millions… and millions.

What else may have cause the fall? I think that in the UK, the clean air act has a significant effect. The Great Smog of London, in the early 1950s, killed tens of thousands in less than a week. Much of this was from respiratory complications, but also CVD. It is now more clearly established that air pollution, in general, increases the risk of CVD. Most Western countries have drastically reduced air pollution.

Now, I would like to consider something almost never mentioned. Lead. That is the element, not the verb. Or the noun, as in dog lead.

In the 1920s someone discovered that if you put lead in petrol/gasoline it had all sorts of benefits on engine performance and wear and tear – and so on. Unfortunately, lead also caused all sorts of problem for human performance, and wear and tear. It is a heavy metal and, like other heavy metals, a powerful human toxin.

Despite the fact that lead toxicity was known for decades, it took until the nineteen-sixties before countries starting banning it from fuel – and pipes in housing – and the like. Which reversed a long-term trend of lead building up inside human beings. It lasts for decades within bone – gradually leaking out.

With regards to lead and CVD, is there a link?

A researcher called Weisskopf looked at the amount of lead in bones, and the rate of CVD. He found that those with the most lead in their bones were 837% more likely to die from CVD (relative risk)1 than those with the least lead in their bones. Now, whilst that is a relative risk, it is of the magnitude where we can safely say we are looking straight at a direct cause of CVD.

How does lead cause CVD. Most likely through the following mechanisms

‘Lead causes endothelial dysfunction by binding and inhibiting endothelial nitric oxide synthase and decreasing nitric oxide production.’2

Yes, we are straight back to my old friends, endothelial dysfunction and decreased nitric oxide (NO) production. In the world of cardiovascular disease, if you know where to look, all roads lead to NO.

If lead does cause CVD, is there any evidence that removing lead from the body can reduce the risk of CVD? [‘Reversibility’ and ‘Experimental Evidence’, the two most powerful of Bradford Hill’s canons for causation]. Which brings me to TACT. A trial designed to look at the impact of chelation on CVD. A way of removing heavy metals from the body…

What I love about this trial is that it was set up primarily to prove that chelation was nonsense, to be laid alongside homeopathy, and suchlike – by mainstream researchers. To quote an article in Medscape:

‘The original TACT trial wrestled with enrolment, ultimately taking over a decade to yield results, in part because cardiologists were absolutely convinced that chelation was a load of horse hockey.’ 3

TACT stands for Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy. When I first heard about chelation, I too, dismissed it as horse hockey. However, it turns out that I done the thing that I always advise everyone else against doing. I placed it in the ‘impossible/horse hockey’ category without making the effort of trying to find out what it was really about.

As it turns out, I should have made more effort…

‘TACT found that patients randomized to a regimen involving up to 40 separate three-hour infusions of a chelation-therapy solution (disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid [EDTA], ascorbic acid, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium bicarbonate, B vitamins, procainamide, and a small amount of standard heparin) experienced an 18% drop in the trial’s primary end point (all-cause death, reinfarction, stroke, revascularization, or hospitalization for angina) compared with patients randomized to a placebo infusion.’3

More extraordinary than this:

‘When we broke the composite down to look at our secondary end points, we found that we had about a 40% reduction in total mortality, a 40% reduction in recurrent MI, and about a 50% reduction in mortality [in patients with diabetes],”3

A 40% – 50% reduction in mortality. Well, well, well. Eat your heart out statins. In fact, eat your heart out every single pharmaceutical product ever tested. What has been the effect on mainstream thinking on CVD? As you would expect, absolutely nothing has changed in the slightest. Still TACT2 is now being set up – so we can all look forward to that being ignored in about seven to ten years’ time.

Anyway, in an attempt to bring some structure to this blog, I am going to return to the start. Why has the rate of CVD gone down in most first world countries over the last fifty years? One of the reasons, I believe, is that the level of heavy metal pollutants (in particular, lead) has been dropping since around the mid nineteen sixties.

I think it could be argued that the US was the first country to embrace the motor car. Thus lead toxicity would have hit the US before anywhere else. I am not going to argue this too strongly, but I place it before you, for your consideration.

I shall finish by saying that, if you want to look for reasons for the pattern on CVD over the last sixty years, or so, you really need to start looking outside the box. For there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

1: Weisskopf MG, Jain N, Nie H, et al. ‘A prospective study of bone lead concentration and death from all causes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer in the Department of Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study’. Circulation 2009;120(12):1056-64.

2: Natalia V. Solenkova et al: ‘Metal pollutants and cardiovascular disease: Mechanisms and consequences of exposure.‘ Am Heart J 2014;168:812-22


What causes heart disease part XXIV

In my long and winding road around cardiovascular disease I have often visited the same themes a few times. In part, this is because we are not dealing with Newtonian physics here. If billiard ball A strikes billiard ball B, at five metres per second, at an angle of 45 degrees, billiard ball B will move off at angle C at velocity D, assuming perfect elasticity. This will always happen, every single time.

On the other hand, with CVD, the complexity of human physiology and psychology, environmental factors, genetics the time of day, even sunspot activity – can have an effect – so some people have reported.

‘Space proton flux and the temporal distribution of cardiovascular deaths.

The influence of solar activity (SA) and geomagnetic activity (GMA) on human homeostasis has long been investigated. The aim of the present study was to analyse the relationship between monthly proton flux (> 90 MeV) and other SA and GMA parameters and between proton flux and temporal (monthly) distribution of total and cardiovascular-related deaths. The data from 180 months (1974-1989) of distribution in the Beilinson Campus of the Rabin Medical Centre, Israel, and of 108 months (1983-1991) from the Kaunas Medical Academy, were analysed and compared with SA, GMA and space proton flux (> 90 MeV). It was concluded: monthly levels of SA, GMA and radiowave propagation (Fof2) are significantly and adversely correlated with monthly space proton flux (> 90 MeV); medical-biological phenomena that increase during periods of low solar and/or geomagnetic activity may be stimulated by physical processes provoked by the concomitant increase in proton flux; the monthly number of deaths related (positively or negatively) to SA are significantly and adversely related to the space proton flux (> 90 MeV).’1

Oh yes, I do cast my net far and wide when looking at cardiovascular disease, as I feel I must. Quite what we are all supposed to do when the space proton flux is greater than 90MeV, I am not certain. Perhaps a tin foil hat would become appropriately protective headgear. By the way, this paper can be found in the National Institutes of Health on-line library – Pubmed. Referenced, peer-reviewed, and everything.

The point being? The point being that if you are looking for ‘billiard ball’ certainty, you are not going to find it here. If you were to do absolutely everything that I believe to be protective against cardiovascular disease, you will shift the odds in your favour, but you could still get struck down by a heart attack or stroke.

Anyway, with that proviso firmly in place, I shall move ahead, or maybe backwards. On the basis that some subjects need a second visit, I have decided to return to look at vitamin C again. First, because I have just been harangued by someone who believes that if you take high doses of vitamin C every day, you can reverse/cure heart disease completely and utterly. He also felt that I had completely ignored the work of G C Willis ‘The reversibility of atherosclerosis’, and also the research of Pauling and Rath on vitamin C.

It is true that I have not actually mentioned Willis before, but I have certainly written at length of Pauling and Rath. However, I realise that time passes, people forget things, and previous blogs settle to the bottom of the sediment layer. Therefore, it is not a bad idea to refresh things from time to time. I am also returning to vitamin C and the issues around it, because I have been getting a lot of correspondence about lipoprotein (a) (Lp(a)) recently. It seems this lipoprotein is gaining increasing attention. Of course, vitamin C and Lp(a) are tightly bound together.

Time, I think, for a quick refresher about this whole area. Particularly as it helps to confirm my central hypothesis that CVD is a disease of blood clotting, and you would struggle to explain the vitamin C/Lp(a) axis in any other way.

To begin. At some point in the distant past, our ancestors lost the ability to manufacture vitamin C. This happened, so I recently read, around sixty-one million years ago. Seems a long way back, but there you go. It has happened to some other animal groups, but not many. Quite why it occurred is unclear. You probably think you know, but I suspect you are wrong.

Interestingly, and as a bit of an aside, vitamin C is synthesized through a multi-step process, and the original molecule is glucose. Humans lack the last step in the process. Perhaps, because of this, glucose and vitamin C have some interesting interactions in the body. Mainly, it seems, that high levels of glucose prevent vitamin C from entering cells. Particularly immune cells, which need a lot of vitamin C to operate effectively. Make of that what you will.

Moving on, because humans cannot synthesize their own vitamin C, we must obtain it from within our diet. If we do not manage to eat enough, we will end up with scurvy. Scurvy presents with many different symptoms, but the one I am going to focus on in this blog is bleeding.

Bleeding occurs, because vitamin C is essential for collagen synthesis – a critical building block of supportive tissue throughout the body. Loss of collagen leads to break down of various structures in the body. For example, the walls of blood vessel walls which, start to break down and ‘crack.’

As blood vessel walls crack, they leak, and bleed. This leads to the best known symptom of scurvy, which is bleeding gums. This was well recognised several hundred years ago, mainly in sailors who had a highly-restricted diet during long voyages. In scurvy there is also bleeding in many other blood vessels, but you can’t easily see it. The usual cause of death in severe scurvy is internal bleeding.

On the positive side, after sixty-one million years, or so, evolution came up with a partial solution to the early stages of scurvy. Namely, the synthesis of a substance to block the cracks in the blood vessel walls, and control the bleeding. This substance is, or course, lipoprotein (a).

Lipoprotein (a) (Lp(a)) is synthesized in the liver, and it travels around in the bloodstream, looking for any cracks in blood vessels walls a.k.a. damaged endothelium. When a crack is spotted Lp(a) is attracted to the area and sticks very firmly, and cannot easily be removed. Of course, the rest of the blood clotting system also moves into action, so all hell breaks loose. Therefore Lp(a) becomes mixed up with platelets, red blood cells, fibrin, and almost everything else in the blood, including all the other lipoproteins.

However, Lp(a) has a very special trick up its sleeve. It mimics plasminogen.

After a blood clot forms, anywhere in the circulation, it has to be broken down, and removed – once the blood vessel underneath it has repaired. I liken this (not very accurately) to road works. If the road surface is damaged, the repair team comes in, sets up barriers and traffic lights and suchlike, then they repair the road. Then all the barriers, and traffic lights, and suchlike, must be removed.

Within a blood vessel, removal of barriers, and traffic lights, is a tricky exercise. Where does the blood clot go? Once a large blood clot has formed, over a ‘crack’ in the wall, it cannot stay there forever, restricting, or totally obstructing, blood flow. On the other hand, if the entire clot simply broke off, and travelled down the artery, it would get stuck as the artery narrowed – causing a complete blockage. Not a good idea.

Ergo, there is a need for a process that removes blood clots that have formed within blood vessels. It is called thrombolysis, or fibrinolysis. To ‘lyse’ means to break down.

The main player in thrombolysis is plasminogen. It becomes incorporated into (almost) all blood clots that form. It is activated by tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA). This turns plasminogen into plasmin, the ‘active’ enzyme that slices fibrin apart [fibrin is a long, and very strong, string of fibrinogen molecules that wraps round blood clots and binds them together].

t-PA can be manufactured and given to people who have heart attacks and strokes, to break apart the blood clots that are blocking the arteries in the brain, or the heart. You may have heard of t-PA referred to as a ‘clot-buster.’ Great stuff, but not so good if your stroke is due to a bleed in the brain, rather than a blood clot. In which case….

t-PA has been around for a while now and, with heart attacks at least, has mainly been superseded by angioplasty. Which is to open up the blocked artery, and stick a metal support (stent) into the artery. T-PA is still use in ischaemic strokes. That is, after you have had a brain scan to work out what sort of stroke you are having.

Sorry to appear to be going off in different directions here, but the systems of blood clotting are highly complex, and I think that explaining where Lp(a) fits in, is important.

Lp(a) is actually a lipoprotein, just like LDL. In fact, it is exactly like LDL, because it is basically LDL. It is the same size and shape, it contains triglyceride and cholesterol. However, it differs in one important aspect. Whilst LDL has a protein stuck to it called apolipoprotein B-100, Lp(a) has another protein stuck to it called apolipoprotein (a). Which is why it is called lipoprotein (a).

The fascinating thing about the protein, apolipoprotein (a), is that is has almost exactly the same chemical structure as plasminogen. So close, that you could hardly tell it apart. However, apolipoprotein (a) is completely unaffected by t-PA. It does not convert to plasmin, it is inert. So, when you want to break down a clot (fibrinolysis), the parts that have Lp(a) incorporated into it, cannot be broken down.

Which means that if you have a high Lp(a) level, you will develop bigger and more difficult to break down blood clots. Exactly what evolution had in mind for creatures that cannot manufacture vitamin C, and need to plug cracks in artery walls when the vitamin C level falls. However, not so good, if you want to stop atherosclerosis from developing.

Because these Lp(a) rich blood clots have to go somewhere, and the only place that they can go is to be absorbed into the artery wall itself, and then broken down. However, these clots are more difficult to break down, so, with repeated clots over the same area of artery wall, bigger and bigger plaques will grow.

That, anyway, is the theory.

What G.C. Willis did in 1957 was to study guinea pigs. Guinea pigs are another animal that does not synthesize vitamin C. He made them scorbutic (vitamin C deficient a.k.a. scurvy). Actually, he did not make them all scorbutic. He had a control group of twelve guinea pigs that he put on a vitamin C deficient diet, then injected them with vitamin C. None of these twelve guinea pigs developed any measurable atherosclerosis.

On the other hand, those guinea pigs on a scorbutic diet rapidly developed atherosclerosis. When I say rapidly, I mean within days. I think this point is worth repeating. If you make a guinea pig scorbutic, it will develop plaques, identical to those found in human arteries within days.

Willis then started feeding his guinea pigs vitamin C, and he found that the lipid filled plaques quite rapidly disappeared. He describes what he saw happening to the guinea after they were fed vitamin C.

‘The results of this investigation indicate that early lesions of atherosclerosis are quickly resorbed. The stages of this process are first a fading of lipid staining in the region of the internal elastic membrane with later a disappearance of all extracellular fat. Active phagocytosis of lipid by macrophage occurs, and when these macrophages finally disappear no evidence of the lesion remains.’ 2

I shall translate that passage for those with a non-science background.

What Willis found was that if you remove vitamin C from the guinea pig diet, they develop fat filled atherosclerotic plaques within days. If you then add vitamin C to the diet again, the plaques rapidly disappear (within days). The process of removal appears to be that the fat/lipid is ingested (phagocytosed) by white blood cells – known as macrophages.

However, if you let the plaques grow for too long, it is far more difficult to get rid of them.

‘More advanced lesions are considerably more resistant to reversal. Extensive lipid deposits clear in some parts of plaque but islands of intensely staining lipid persists in other parts. The macrophage response to such areas is only slight.’

It seems that if you don’t get rid of the plaque pretty much straight away, you don’t get rid of it at all. [Or maybe he didn’t wait long enough to see what happened over months, or years. Although my childhood memory of guinea pigs is that they tend to drop dead at the slightest excuse].

Of course, this was guinea pigs, not humans, so we must be careful not to extrapolate too far. However, previously, Willis had studied humans. Not many, only sixteen. Ten people with identified plaques were given vitamin C, six were not. In those ten treated with vitamin C, the plaques got bigger in three, stayed the same in one, and reduced in size in six. In those six not given vitamin C, three remained the same, and in three the plaques got bigger. Interesting, but hardly cast-iron proof of anything.

At this point there are a number of strands to gather together. We now know that humans cannot synthesize vitamin C, so we need to eat it. Without enough vitamin C, our blood vessels crack and bleed, and in severe cases we bleed to death.

In order to provide a degree of protection against vitamin C deficiency (scurvy), we produce lipoprotein (a) to fill up the cracks the blood vessels. However, unsurprisingly, a high level of lipoprotein (a) Lp(a) is associated with a higher rate of CVD.

‘In summary, elevated Lp(a) levels associate robustly and specifically with increased CVD risk. The association is continuous in shape without a threshold and does not depend on high levels of LDL or non-HDL cholesterol, or on the levels or presence of other cardiovascular risk factors.’ 3

This raises two inter-connected questions. Does vitamin C supplementation lower Lp(a) levels, and does it reduce the risk of CVD? It is of course entirely possible that vitamin C could reduce CVD risk by protecting blood vessels from ‘cracking’ without having any effect on Lp(a) levels.

Now you would think that this would have been an area of research interest to someone…. Anyone. However, the only people who seem to have looked at this area in any details are Linus Pauling (double Nobel prize winner, now dead) and Matthias Rath. A man whose reputation within the mainstream medical profession makes that of Andrew Wakefield look like mother Teresa. This from Wikipedia:

‘The Sunday Times (Johannesburg) has described Rath as an “international campaigner for the use of natural remedies” whose “theories on the treatment of cancer have been rejected by health authorities all over the world.”

On HIV/AIDS, Rath has disparaged the pharmaceutical industry and denounced antiretroviral medication as toxic and dangerous, while claiming that his vitamin pills could reverse the course of AIDS. As a result, Rath has been accused of “potentially endangering thousands of lives” in South Africa, a country with a massive AIDS epidemic where Rath was active in the mid-2000s. The head of Médecins Sans Frontières said “This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence”; Rath attempted to sue him.

Rath’s claims and methods have been widely criticised by medical organisations, AIDS-activist groups, and the United Nations, among others Former South African President Thabo Mbeki and former Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have also been criticised by the medical and AIDS-activist community for their perceived support for Rath’s claims According to doctors with Médecins Sans Frontières, the Treatment Action Campaign (a South African AIDS-activist group) and a former Rath colleague, unauthorised clinical trials run by Rath and his associates, using vitamins as therapy for HIV, resulted in deaths of some participants. In 2008, the Cape High Court found the trials unlawful, banned Rath and his foundation from conducting unauthorised clinical trials and from advertising their products, and instructed the South African Health Department to fully investigate Rath’s vitamin trials.’

Matthias Rath even managed to fall out with Linus Pauling, before Pauling’s death, and law suits ensued. Rath has also successfully sued the BMJ, received £100,000 in damages. So, as you can see, not really a poster boy for mainstream medical research.

I include this information, as I think it is critical to the entire Vitamin C discussion. Because Matthias Rath is viewed as absolute scientific poison this has made the whole area of vitamin C supplementation a complete no-go area for any respectable scientist. If, as a doctor, you try to suggest that vitamin supplementation may be a possible treatment for, say, CVD, you might as well hand you licence over to the authorities at the same time – to save them the trouble of striking you off the medical register (almost a joke, but not quite).

So, essentially, we have a huge void here. The only research that I have ever seen (maybe I missed some) to establish if vitamin C supplementation does actually lower Lp(a) levels was done by Matthias Rath. And, according to him, it does. More so, in those with higher levels to start with. I am not referencing this research, but I would suggest you have a look around Rath and Pauling and vitamin C and Lp(a). See what you think. I think the research is robust.

With regard to the critical question, does vitamin C reduce the risk of CVD [with or without lowering Lp(a)]. I would say, case currently unproven. This does not mean that it does not (in fact I believe that it probably does). What I mean by ‘case currently unproven’ is that no-one has done a large scale interventional study using vitamin C to find out if it really reduces CVD.

The problem here is that such a study is almost certainly never going to be done. There is no way anyone can make money from doing such a study. Vitamin C cannot be patented, so if a company spend several hundred million ‘proving’ that vitamin C reduced CVD death, they would never get any money back.

You would have to find a Governmental organisation, tax payer funded, to do such a study. And with Matthias Rath around, that just ain’t going to happen. No-one would touch it.

However, there is one way to definitely reduce Lp(a) levels, and that is to take l-carnitine. Here, from a study called ‘L-carnitine reduces plasma lipoprotein(a) levels in patients with hyper Lp(a)’

‘L-carnitine, a natural compound stimulating fatty acid oxidation at the mitochondrial level, was tested in a double blind study in 36 subjects with Lp(a) levels ranging between 40-80 mg/dL, in most with concomitant LDL cholesterol and triglyceride elevations. L-carnitine (2 g/day) significantly reduced Lp(a) levels… the reduction being more dramatic in the subjects with the more marked elevations. In particular, in the L-carnitine group, 14 out of 18 subjects (77.8%) had a significant reduction of Lp(a) vs only 7 out of 18 (38.9%) in the placebo group. In a significant number of subjects the reduction of Lp(a) resulted in a return of this major cardiovascular risk parameter to the normal range.’ 4

Does this then result in a reduction in CVD risk? The answer is that I do not know, for sure. A meta-analysis of L-carnitine supplementation has been done. This consisted of five trials on three thousand people. L-carnitine supplementation did show some benefit – which did not reach statistical significance, but came very, very close.

For those of you who like a bit of statistics, here we go

‘The interaction test yielded no significant differences between the effects of the four daily oral maintenance dosages of L-carnitine (i.e., 2 g, 3 g, 4 g, and 6 g) on all-cause mortality (risk ratio [RR] = 0.77, 95% CI [0.57-1.03], P = 0.08)’5

CI [0.57 to 1.03] – close, but no cigar.

To put this into figures anyone can understand. In the intervention groups (those taking L-carnitine) there were 83 deaths. In the control group (those not taking L-carnitine) there were 106 deaths. Total study population was 3108, split in two groups: control and intervention. This gets as close to statistical significance as you can get (virtually). In fact, if this had been a statin trial, you would never have heard the end of it. ‘Ladies and gentlemen a 22% reduction in overall mortality with L-carnitine supplementation.’ [Oh, what fun statistics are].

So, what do we know?

  • A high level of Lp(a) is associated with a higher risk of CVD.
  • There is a probable causal mechanism linking Lp(a) to CVD death
  • Lp(a) is synthesized in animals that cannot make their own Vitamin C
  • A lack of vitamin C causes blood vessels to crack open – and potentially leads to atherosclerotic plaques development
  • Animal models have shown that a lack of vitamin C does lead to rapid atherosclerotic plaque development, and that replacement of vitamin C causes rapid regression of atherosclerosis
  • Some evidence from humans suggest that vitamin C supplementation causes regression of atherosclerotic plaques
  • Vitamin C supplementation does seem to lead to a reduction in Lp(a) levels
  • L-carnitine supplementation does lead to a reduction in Lp(a) levels
  • L-carnitine supplementation may reduce overall mortality.

What would I now recommend? If you have a high Lp(a) level take lots of vitamin C and l-carnitine and see if your Lp(a) level falls. If it does, keep taking lots of vitamin C and l-carnitine for the rest of your life. If it does not fall? Not sure.

As for the rest of us? Well I have no idea how much vitamin C anyone should take, or how much l-carnitine is required. There is literally no area of medicine that is less clear than our true vitamin requirements. You can find a thousand shouty people supporting high vitamin supplementation – any or all vitamins.

My view. I do not think the RDAs for vitamins are remotely accurate, or useful. They were established in times of absolute deficiency. The agreed Vitamin B12 levels, for example, were based on seven people, over sixty years ago, and remain unchanged to this day. All seven had pernicious anaemia (caused by vitamin B12 deficiency).

So, I do not believe in the RDAs at all. They are often, I believe, too low for optimal health. I can see no harm coming to people from taking lots of vitamin C or lots of l-carnitine. So, supplement away. You will probably reduce your risk of dying from CVD.







What causes heart disease part XXIII

As 2016 draws to an end, I believe that a change is in the air. The dietary guidelines, or perhaps I should call them the ‘dietary misguidedlines’, are under a sustained attack. This, finally, may actually result in success. We will be able move on from believing that fat, or saturated fat, in the diet is responsible for cardiovascular disease or, indeed, any form of disease.

But where to then? The current dogma is that saturated fat in the diet raises cholesterol levels and this, in turn, leads to cardiovascular disease. However, as many of you may have spotted earlier this year, in the Minnesota Coronary Experiment (MCE), substituting saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat was effective at lowering cholesterol levels. However, it had absolutely no effect on deaths for heart disease, and greatly increased the overall risk of death.

The summary of this trial was, as follows:

  • It involved 9423 women and men aged 20-97
  • A cholesterol lowering diet was used, replacing saturated fat with linoleic acid (from corn oil and corn oil polyunsaturated margarine).
  • The low saturated fat group had a significant reduction in serum cholesterol compared with controls.
  • There was no evidence of benefit in the intervention group for coronary atherosclerosis or myocardial infarcts.
  • For every 0.78mmol/l reduction in serum cholesterol [Around a 20% reduction], there was a 22% higher risk of death [This is about a 30% reduction in cholesterol level]

Big deal, you might think. This is just one trial, so what difference does it make. However, this was no ordinary trial. It was absolutely pivotal for four main reasons:

  • It was the largest controlled trials of its kind ever done. That is, substituting saturated with polyunsaturated fats.
  • It was done by Ancel Keys (who started the entire diet-heart hypothesis in the first place)
  • It was finished, before the main clinical nutritional guidelines were developed
  • It was not published at the time, for reasons that have never been explained, by anyone.

As the authors of the re-analysis note.

Whatever the explanation for key MCE data not being published, there is growing recognition that incomplete publication of negative or inconclusive results can contribute to skewed research priorities and public health initiatives. Recovery of unpublished data can alter the balance of evidence and, in some instances, can lead to reversal of established policy or clinical practice positions.” 1

Which is a polite way of saying that a bunch of liars hid the results. Almost certainly because the results contradicted their self-promoted message that saturated fats are unhealthy. It is clear that these researchers, in particular Ancel Keys, did this quite deliberately, and then continued to promote their own dietary dogma.

I think it is almost impossible to overestimate the long-term impact of the non-publication of this trial.

  • For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
  • For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
  • For want of a horse the rider was lost.
  • For want of a rider the message was lost.
  • For want of a message the battle was lost.
  • For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
  • And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Here is my updated version

  • For want of the MCE trial evidence the McGovern hearings were lost
  • For want of the hearings the guidelines were lost
  • For want of the guidelines the message was lost
  • For want of the message battle was lost
  • For want of the battle saturated fat was lost
  • All for the want of the MCE trial data.

The McGovern hearings which set the entire direction of nutritional thinking, and guidelines, took place in 1977. The MCE trial ran from 1968 to 1973. Had the data from this study been made available, the dietary guidelines in the US, the UK and the rest of the world (In their current form, demonising saturated fat) simply could not have been written.

If those guidelines had not been written, then the entire world of cardiovascular research would almost certainly have gone off in a different direction. The role of LDL in causing CVD would have been consigned to the dustbin history. Goldstein and Brown wouldn’t have done their research on Familial Hypercholesterolaemia, statins would never have been developed, and we not have been forced to endure fifty years of the damaging, destructive diet-heart/cholesterol hypothesis.

The fact that the diet-heart/cholesterol hypothesis is complete nonsense, has been clear as day to many people for many years. In 1977 George Mann, a co-director of the Framingham Study, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine called it ‘the greatest scam in the history of medicine.’ In my view, anyone with a moderately functioning brain, can easily see that it is nonsense.

So, if not fat and cholesterol, what does cause cardiovascular disease, and more importantly, what can be done to prevent it, or at least delay it? At last (some of you are thinking) I will state what I believe to be one of the most important things you can do to reduce the risk.

Returning to the central process of cardiovascular disease (CVD), for a moment. If you are going to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, you must do, at least, one of three things:

  • Protect the endothelium (lining of blood vessels) from harm
  • Reduce the risk of blood clots forming – especially over areas of endothelial damage
  • Reduce the size and tenacity (difficulty of being broken down) of the blood clots that develop

If you can do all three, you will reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack, or stroke, to virtually zero.

What protects the endothelium?

There are many things that that can do this, but the number one agent that protects the endothelium is nitric oxide (NO). Thus, anything that stimulates NO synthesis will be protective against CVD. Which brings us to sunshine and vitamin D.

  • Sunlight on the skin directly stimulates NO synthesis, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve arterial elasticity, and a whole host of other beneficial things for your cardiovascular system, not least a reduction in blood clot formation.
  • Sunlight on the skin also creates vitamin D, which has significant impact on NO synthesis in endothelial cells, alongside many other actions. It also prevents cancer, so you get a double benefit.

Therefore, my first direct piece of direct advice for those who want to prevent heart disease, is to sunbathe. In the winter when the sun is not shining take vitamin D supplementation. Alternatively, go on holiday to somewhere sunny. Or get a UVB sunbed, and use it.

My only note of warning here is to say, don’t burn, it is painful and you don’t need to.

By the way, don’t worry about skin cancer. Sun exposure protects against all forms of cancer to a far greater degree than it may cause any specific cancer. To give you reassurance on this point, here is a Medscape article, quoting from a long-term Swedish study on sun exposure:

‘Nonsmokers who stayed out of the sun had a life expectancy similar to smokers who soaked up the most rays, according to researchers who studied nearly 30,000 Swedish women over 20 years.

This indicates that avoiding the sun “is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking,” write the authors of the article, published March 21 in the Journal of Internal Medicine. Compared with those with the highest sun exposure, life expectancy for those who avoided sun dropped by 0.6 to 2.1 years.

Pelle Lindqvist, MD, of Karolinska University Hospital in Huddinge, Sweden, and colleagues found that women who seek out the sun were generally at lower risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and noncancer/non-CVD diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and pulmonary diseases, than those who avoided sun exposure.

And one of the strengths of the study was that results were dose-specific — sunshine benefits went up with amount of exposure. The researchers acknowledge that longer life expectancy for sunbathers seems paradoxical to the common thinking that sun exposure increases risk for skin cancer.

“We did find an increased risk of…skin cancer. However, the skin cancers that occurred in those exposing themselves to the sun had better prognosis,” Dr Lindqvist said.”2

In short, avoiding the sun is a bad for you as smoking. In my opinion ordering people to avoid the sun, is possibly the single most dangerous and damaging piece of health prevention advice there has ever been. The sun has been up there, shining down, for over four billion years. Only very recently have we hidden from it. If you believe in evolution, you must also believe that sunshine provides significant health benefits. It cannot be otherwise.

Happy, sunny, CVD risk reduced, 2017

I have just added a little poem that was just sent as a comment on my blog. Thanks for the laugh.

Ancel Benjamin Keys
Researched dietary disease.
When the facts turned out contrarian,
He simply up and buried ’em. [Martin Back]


Saturated fat and heart disease

The greatest scam in the history of medicine’ George Mann

I have been a bit quiet of late, mainly because I got a cough that ended up as a nasty chest infection, that also caused my brain to turn to mush for about three weeks. Maybe it was the antibiotics. Anyway proof, as far as I am concerned, that the mind and body are closely connected.

Yes, another little detour from my series, trying to explain what causes cardiovascular disease. But I thought I need to look, once again, at the hypothesis that saturated fat consumption is a cause – perhaps the cause of cardiovascular disease?

To be honest, I have studied saturated fat consumption many, many… many, many, times. The one thing that has always stood out, most starkly, is the complete lack of any real evidence to support the idea that it causes cardiovascular disease.

On the other hand, evidence contradicting it arrives on an almost daily basis. The following study was sent to me a few days ago, although it is now almost ten months since it was first published. The researchers looked at nearly thirty-six thousand people over twelve years. It was done in the Netherlands. The main conclusions were that that:

‘Total saturated fat intake was associated with a lower IHD (Ischaemic Heart Disease) risk (HR per 5% of energy 0.83). Substituting SFAs with animal protein, cis-monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats or carbohydrates was significantly associated with higher IHD risks (HR 1.27 – 1.37).’1

One thing scientific researchers have learned over the years is that you can never say anything in a straightforward way. I think the game is that, if anyone can easily understand your findings, you lose. A game played to its illogical conclusion by French Philosophers. Something I remarked to my son, who was trying to quote Derrida at me. Here would be one snappy Derrida quote:

“Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the usual sense of this opposition), as a small or large unity, can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion. This does not suppose that the mark is valid outside its context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring. This citationality, duplication, or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is not an accident or anomaly, but is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could no longer even have a so-called “normal” functioning. What would a mark be that one could not cite? And whose origin could not be lost on the way?”

Yes, indeed. Couldn’t agree more.

As with Derrida, so with scientific papers. What these researchers should have said is the following. ‘The more saturated fat you eat, the lower your risk of dying of cardiovascular disease, and vice-versa.’ A thirteen per cent reduction in death for every five per cent increase in energy obtained from saturated fat consumption. Why do they run away from making such easy to understand statements? I think Derrida could probably tell us. If we could ever understand anything he ever wrote, or said.

However, I am not going to bombard you with endless facts contradicting the saturated fat hypothesis, I am going to get a little more philosophical here. To ask, what is it about some scientific ideas/hypotheses that they become so quickly entrenched – without the need for the tedious requirement of any actual facts.

My thoughts were drawn to this issue by something seemingly unconnected. Which is a legal hearing the UK concerning shaken baby syndrome. Most experts in paediatrics are absolutely convinced that there is such a thing. It is quoted in textbooks as an undisputed fact. Many parents, and other adults, have been convicted, and sent to jail, for shaking their babies so hard that it caused the ‘triad’ of shaken baby syndrome: subdural hematoma, retinal bleeding, and brain swelling

On the other hand, we have Dr Waney Squier, a paediatrician who used to provide expert opinion on child abuse cases in the UK. She was struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC) for, well the exact judgement is, as per Derrida, impossible to understand.

The GMC judgement has certainly been criticized:

‘Michael Mansfield, Clive Stafford Smith and others argue that the General Medical Council is behaving like a “21st-century inquisition” in the case of Dr Waney Squier (Shaken baby syndrome doctor struck off, 22 March).’

The GMC responded thus:

‘Far from wishing to suppress different views, we recognise that scientific advance is achieved by challenging as well as developing existing theories, and importantly in this context we are absolutely clear that neither the GMC nor the courts are the place where such scientific disputes can be resolved. To be clear, it is possible that a doctor who ultimately was proved to have the correct theory could present their evidence in such a way as to mislead, just as it is possible for a doctor advocating a theory ultimately proved to be flawed to present their case in context and with integrity.’

Niall Dickson

Chief executive, General Medical Council

The only possible response to Niall Dickson’s remark is ‘bollocks.’ You can present the correct theory in a way to mislead, and you can present a flawed hypothesis with integrity? George Orwell would surely nod in approval of such perfect doublethink. You are right, but we don’t like the way you present being right. We would rather listen to someone talk absolute nonsense using the correct professional manner. Can I have my knighthood now, please?

Leaving the machinations of the GMC aside, the main issue is simple. Dr Waney Squier does not believe that shaken baby syndrome exists. Of course she knows that the triad of subdural haematoma, retinal bleeding and brain swelling exists. But she believes there could be other explanations. Including, perish the very thought, an accidental fall.

Because she does not believe in shaken baby syndrome, she has presented evidence in court which has tended to undermine the prosecution case against parents and carers, accused of shaking a baby and causing severe brain damage. Much to the annoyance of the police and they then, for it was indeed them, reported Dr Squier to the GMC.

Now, I know what most of you are thinking. Surely ‘shaken baby syndrome’ exists. This must have been proven. Well, it has not. If you think about it, how could it be proven? How do you think a study on shaken baby syndrome could ever be done? Get five hundred children, shake them forcefully and see what happens to their brains. I suspect you might find gaining ethical approval for a such a study might be tricky.

Despite this, and the fact that shaken baby syndrome represents an ‘unproven hypothesis’ almost all experts around the world are convinced that shaken baby syndrome exists. Dr Squier, who seems a well-rounded and sensible lady, has made the terrible mistake of questioning that this dogma. There could be, shock horror, other possible causes.

The police objected, judges objected, her peers objected, and she has been struck off. No longer able to practice medicine anywhere in the world. She has become a medical pariah.

The good news is that her case in going in front of an actual court of law in the UK. I strongly suspect (maybe I just hope) that her ‘conviction’ will be overturned. She does have the support of a number of other paediatricians around the world. However, in the meantime, other doctors, who do not believe in shaken baby syndrome, will not dare go to court to testify in support of those accused of shaking babies. Such is the power of the Spanish Inquisition.

Shaken baby syndrome: saturated fat consumption.

On the fact of it shaken baby syndrome and saturated fat consumption have very little in common. However, from another perspective the parallels are clear. Both are seductively simple ideas that appeal to common sense. That most deadly of all senses.

Most people can clearly see how a small, vulnerable, baby will suffer significant brain injury if it is shaken too hard. Close your eyes and you can virtually see it happening. If you can bear having that image in your head for any length of time.

Most parents, I think, can almost see themselves doing it, or having done it – when their child will ‘just not dammed well stop crying.’ In short, shaken baby syndrome can easily be visualised, and it triggers a kind of visceral horror. We can easily see how a feckless parent may lack the self-control required to stop themselves doing it. ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up….’

And that, dear reader, is as scientific as shaken baby syndrome gets. A hypothesis based on visceral fear, prejudice, and knee-jerk judgement. This makes it almost perfectly resistant to any contradictory evidence. Try to argue against it, and you will meet anger and bluster and the idee fixe.

I was once told a story which goes as follows. It concerns a psychiatrist trying to convince a patient that he is not dead. A battle that that had gone on for many years, eventually the psychiatrist comes up with a brilliant idea….

Psychiatrist:       ‘Do dead people bleed?’

Patient:                                   ‘No, I guess not.’

Psychiatrist:       (Takes pin from lapel and pricks the patient’s thumb, and a drop of blood appears). ‘Aha, do you see that?’

Patient:                 (Looks at thumb) ‘What do you know, I guess dead people do bleed then.’


The ‘saturated fat causing heart disease hypothesis’ comes from a very similar place called – well, it’s obvious isn’t it, just common sense. Heart disease is basically a build of fat in the arteries, isn’t it.? Where can that possibly come from? Fat in the diet. Especially the thick, sticky, gooey stuff that you get on a pork chop, or suchlike. That’s got to be it hasn’t it? The thick horrible squidgy gooey fat that you eat, ends up as thick horrible squidgy gooey fat in your arteries. Serves you right for eating fat, and MacDonald’s, and suchlike.

There rests the entire scientific argument against saturated fat. As such it is difficult to argue against. Facts simply bounce off. As demonstrated very clearly to me in a more recent publication. A very major review was published a few weeks ago on the Journal of Food and Nutrition Research called ‘Food consumption and the actual statistics of cardiovascular diseases: an epidemiological comparison of 42 European countries.’ 2

‘The aim of this ecological study was to identify the main nutritional factors related to the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) in Europe, based on a comparison of international statistics.

What did they find? Well, they found lots of things, but the key things they found were the following:

We found exceptionally strong relationships between some of the examined factors, the highest being a correlation between raised cholesterol in men and the combined consumption of animal fat and animal protein (r=0.92, p<0.001). The most significant dietary correlate of low CVD risk was high total fat and animal protein consumption.’

Now that paragraph really needs a however in it. Just after p<0.001 and the ‘The.’ Yes, they found that animal fat (mainly saturated fat) and animal protein did indeed raise cholesterol. However, animal fat and animal protein consumption showed the most powerful correlation with low risk of cardiovascular disease.

Which food items showed the highest correlation with increased CVD risk? Have a guess.

‘The major correlate of high CVD risk was the proportion of energy from carbohydrates and alcohol, or from potato and cereal carbohydrates.’

The conclusion of the authors:

‘Our results do not support the association between CVDs and saturated fat, which is still contained in official dietary guidelines. Instead, they agree with data accumulated from recent studies that link CVD risk with the high glycaemic index/load of carbohydrate-based diets. In the absence of any scientific evidence connecting saturated fat with CVDs, these findings show that current dietary recommendations regarding CVDs should be seriously reconsidered.’

When the British Heart Foundation was presented with the findings from this study they found a Dr Mike Knapton to make the following statement:

“Other studies, however, show diets high in saturated fat are linked to raised cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease. So, for you and me, we should consider our diet as a whole to reduce our overall risk, such as a traditional Mediterranean style diet, which is a style of eating associated with a lower rate of coronary heart disease. The key is a balanced diet over all, rather than considering individual foods. There are many factors which cause heart disease and stroke and no single food or nutrient is solely responsible for this. We will continue to recommend switching saturated fat for unsaturated fat.”

As you can see, when presented with evidence, the BHF refuses to consider it, and turns to gibberish. Dr Mike Knapton argues that this study should be ignored, because other studies have shown that saturated fat raised cholesterol levels, and this is a risk factor for heart disease.

‘Hellooo Dr Knapton. This study also showed that saturated fat increased blood cholesterol levels. However, what it also showed is that this reduced the risk of heart disease. Did you even read that bit, or do you simply dismiss papers contradicting the diet-heart hypothesis on the basis they must be wrong – so what it the point of actually reading them?’

On many occasions I, and others, have tried to engage the BHF in debate. However, you can’t. They just provide ‘statements’. The statements never change, the evidence they use never revealed. However big a study, however contradictory it is, it will be met with statement such as Other studies, however, show diets high in saturated fat are linked to raised cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

Made up scientific hypothesis are, I find, very difficult to dislodge with evidence.

1: ‘The association between dietary saturated fatty acids and ischemic heart disease depends on the type and source of fatty acid in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer andNutrition–Netherlands cohort’ Jaike Praagman, Joline WJ Beulens, Marjan Alssema, Peter L Zock, Anne J Wanders, Ivonne Sluijs, and Yvonne T van der Schouw. Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.122671


What causes heart disease past XVIII

[Yes, this one took a long time to write]

When I started looking at heart disease, or cardiovascular disease (CVD) it was initially because I was interested to know why the Scots and the French had such different death rates. I had also just finished a book by James le Fanu called ‘Eat your heart out’ in which he made it very clear, or at least he did to me, that fat/saturated fat in the diet had nothing to do with CVD in any way shape of form.

However, at the time le Fanu was very much a voice crying in the wilderness. The experts had a very different song, or dirge. Namely that the Scots diet was terribly unhealthy, and this fully explained why they kept keeling over from heart attacks. Their bad diet raised cholesterol levels and…. thud (sound of Scots person falling over dead).

This is still very much the case. All of our medical authorities still announce the absolute truth of the ‘terrible Scottish diet’ with adamantine confidence. They usually bring out the almost mythical ‘deep fried mars bar’ as the perfect example as to why the Scots die of heart attacks, and strokes, and suchlike. ‘Well, what can you expect of a nation that eats deep fried mars bars… ho, ho.’

The truth is that hardly any Scotsman, or women, has ever eaten such a thing. And if they did it once, they will most certainly never do it again (I was certainly put off for life after one drunken foray on a Saturday night). Of course, there is also a perfect irony here. A mars bar is almost entirely made up sugar (not fat). When you fry it, it will be in vegetable/polyunsaturated fat – as saturated fats have been virtually banned in deep fat fryers. So, in theory, a deep fried mars bar should be somewhat more heart healthy than a ‘virgin’ mars bar. As it now contains a mass of hot sugar plus some heart ‘healthy’ polyunsaturated fat.

I suppose this example, at least to me, highlights the complete lack of any consistent logic or thought in the diet heart world. A fact that I became very painfully aware of, over many years. Indeed, I came to realise that there is no area of human existence where more nonsense is spouted than the ever-changing beliefs about what constitutes a healthy, or unhealthy diet. Frankly, it is almost entirely wall to wall rubbish.

At one point I made an effort to look at the classical ‘risk factors’ for heart disease between France and Scotland. This was done some years ago as part of a paper I wrote called ‘Does Insulin Resistance cause atherosclerosis in the post-prandial period?’ Something which I still think is at least part of the picture of CVD.

Here is the table I put together from a number of different sources – there was no single source for the data I was looking for. [I could not find separate UK and Scottish figures for a number of the factors, so I had to look at the UK as a whole. In addition, at there were no clear cut data on saturated fat, so I used animal fat as a proxy – which is almost the same thing]

Risk factors and death rates from CHD in the UK and France per 100,000/year (men 55 – 64)
France UK
Animal fat % total energy intake 25.7% 27%
Fruit/veg % total energy intake 5.0% 4.3%
Percentage smoking 32% 29%
Total cholesterol level 6.1mmol/l 6.2mmol/l
HDL level 1.3mmol/l 1.3mmol/l
Systolic BP 150 148
Prevalence type II diabetes ~2% 2%
Percentage who never exercise 32% 24%
Mean BMI 26.6 26.6
Death rate from IHD (IHD 410-4) 128 487

As you can see, there was virtually no difference in the classical risk factors for UK men and French men. Despite this, the French had one quarter the risk of death from ischaemic heart disease [what you or I would tend to call heart disease]. Since that time the French rate of heart disease has continued to fall, as it has also done in the UK, whilst the French consumption of saturated fat has risen. Interestingly total cholesterol levels have fallen in both countries.

So, whatever was going on had very little to do with diet. And if it had very little to do with diet, then it also had little to do with cholesterol either. If your hypothesis is that eating saturated fat increases cholesterol, or LDL cholesterol levels, which then causes CVD then how can two countries with exactly the same saturated fat consumption and cholesterol level (and all other risk factors equal) have such a different rate of CVD? And how could France, whilst continuing to eat more saturate fat, have a falling cholesterol levels? And how does the Ukraine, which currently has the lowest saturated fat intake in Europe, end up with the highest rate of CVD etc. etc. etc.

When you start looking at facts like this you must start to question the diet-heart cholesterol hypothesis. Or at least I thought you must. How wrong I was. Virtually the entire medical profession was wedded to the diet-heart cholesterol hypothesis – still is. Facts appear to have no impact whatsoever on this belief system.

Anyway, once I started to look at CVD in more detail, I was confronted with a choice. Accept that I must be wrong. After all, how can all the researchers and experts and Nobel prize winners be wrong. They must surely be seeing things that I cannot. Or, accept that the diet-heart cholesterol hypothesis was wrong. The blue pill, or the red pill.

Dear reader, I chose the red pill, in the sure and certain knowledge that rejecting the conventional thinking was certainly not going to be an easy path to follow. I also knew that if I was going to reject the diet-heart/cholesterol hypothesis, then I had to try and find out what does actually cause CVD. When I looked around at first there, were few alternative voices, or hypotheses out there. If truth be told, there seemed to be none (at least initially). But if not cholesterol, then what?

Over time, as I looked around, some ghosts in the machine began to emerge. I was aware of a doctor (whose name I cannot even remember) who firmly believe that fibrinogen was the main cause of CVD, and I went to a talk that he gave on the subject – not paying it much heed in truth. Then the Scottish Heart Health Study was published, and the single most powerful risk factor that emerged for CVD risk was… fibrinogen. A blood clotting factor. Aha. Could CVD actually be due to blood clotting abnormalities?

This was a time before the internet, before search engines, before finding information was so easy. This was an era when you had to traipse down to the medical library and pull actual books from actual shelves if you wanted to find out stuff. After pulling a lot of books off a lot of shelves I learned of Duguid, a Scottish doctor, who argued that blood clotting was the cause of CVD (I paraphrase).

His work was published shortly after the second world war, and has remained mostly unread. Then I went all the way back to Karl von Rokitansky who, in 1852, felt that atherosclerotic plaques were, in fact, just blood clots – in various stages of repair. An observation which, from time to time, other researchers have noted. Most particularly a doctor called Smith, from Aberdeen. He is no longer active in this area of research.

Here is the abstract from his paper ‘Fibrinogen, fibrin and fibrin degradation products in relation to atherosclerosis’. I have quote the abstract in full, for those who like to see a bit more detail. Others may glaze over, or skip to the last sentence:

‘Many human atherosclerotic lesions, showing no evidence of fissure or ulceration, contain a large amount of fibrin which may be in the form of mural thrombus on the intact surface of the plaque, in layers within the fibrous cap, in the lipid-rich centre, or diffusely distributed throughout the plaque. Small mural thrombi are invaded by SMCs (smooth muscle cells) and collagen is deposited in patterns closely resembling the early proliferative gelatinous lesions. In experimental animals, thrombi are converted into lesions with all the characteristics of fibrous plaques, and in saphenous-vein bypass grafts, fibrin deposition is the main cause of wall thickening and occlusion. There seems little doubt that fibrin deposition can both initiate atherogenesis and contribute to the growth of plaques.

Epidemiological studies indicate that increased levels of fibrinogen and clotting activity are associated with accelerated atherosclerosis, and although blood fibrinolytic activity has given inconsistent results, in arterial intima both fibrinolytic activity and plasminogen concentration are decreased in cardiovascular disease. Fibrin may stimulate cell proliferation by providing a scaffold along which cells migrate, and by binding fibronectin, which stimulates cell migration and adhesion. Fibrin degradation products, which are present in the intima, may stimulate mitogenesis and collagen synthesis, attract leukocytes, and alter endothelial permeability and vascular tone.

In the advanced plaque fibrin may be involved in the tight binding of LDL and accumulation of lipid. Thus there is extensive evidence that enhanced blood coagulation is a risk factor not only for thrombotic occlusion, but also for atherogenesis. Enhanced blood coagulation frequently coexists with hyperlipidaemia and, together, these may have a synergistic effect on atherogenesis.’ 1

For those whose eyes did glaze over, concentrate only on the last sentence. ‘Enhanced blood coagulation frequently coexists with hyperlipidaemia and, together, these may have a synergistic effect on atherogenesis.’

Here, ladies and gentlemen, lies my little secret. My evil twin brother who I have kept in the attic for the last twenty years, gnawing at the floorboards. The terrible truth that there is an association between LDL levels/familial hypercholesterolemia and CVD. Something which I appear to have argued against for many, many, years.

Does this mean that the experts have been right, all along? High LDL cholesterol levels do cause CVD? Well maybe, maybe not. At this point I need to take you back to the statement again. ‘Enhanced blood coagulation frequently coexists with hyperlipidaemia.

Does this mean that hyperlipidaemia actually causes enhanced blood coagulation? Or does it mean that something else causes both. Here is the old ‘yellow fingers and lung cancer’ discussion.

‘People with yellow fingers are more likely to die of lung cancer.’

Why… because people with yellow fingers smoke, and smoking causes lung cancer. Ergo yellow fingers are simply a sign of smoking, they do not actually cause lung cancer.

‘People with raised LDL are more likely to die from CVD’

Why… because people with raised LDL are also more likely to have enhanced blood coagulation. Ergo, raised LDL levels are only associated with enhanced blood coagulation, they do not actually cause CVD. It is the blood coagulation factors.

Alternatively, raised LDL may actually enhance blood coagulation, all by itself.

Where does the answer lie? In truth the answer has been very difficult to tease out. Even now, after many years, I do not feel that I can fully disentangle the data. Here for example, is a paper called ‘Maternal familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) confers altered haemostatic profile in offspring with and without FH.’

Children with (n=9) and without (n=7) FH born of mothers with FH, as well as control children (n=16) born of non-FH mothers were included in the study. The concentrations of tissue plasminogen activator, plasminogen activator inhibitor (PAI-1), tissue factor (TF), TF pathway inhibitor (TFPI), thrombomodulin, fibrinogen, prothrombin fragment 1+2 and von Willebrand Factor were measured. Our findings show i) higher levels of PAI-1 and TFPI in children with and without FH born of mothers with FH compared with control children, ii) lower levels of thrombomodulin in children with FH compared with control children, and iii) significant correlations between maternal PAI-1 levels during pregnancy and PAI-1 levels in the offspring.’2

What this tells us is that, if a mother has Familial Hypercholesterolaemia, she passes on abnormalities of blood coagulation to her children. Both those that have, and those that do not have FH. [Not all children of mothers with FH will end up with the FH gene]. Some of this may be epigenetically modulated. In short, it is not the LDL that is important, it is simply the mother’s genes….

Or is it? Here is a paper suggesting that the LDL itself, independently of anything else, makes platelets more likely to stick together (a key step in blood clotting).

The interaction of platelets with lipoproteins has been under intense investigation. Particularly the initiation of platelet signaling pathways by low density lipoprotein (LDL) has been studied thoroughly, since platelets of hypercholesterolemic patients, whose plasma contains elevated LDL levels due to absent or defective LDL receptors, show hyperaggregability in vitro and enhanced activity in vivo. These observations suggest that LDL enhances platelet responsiveness….’ 3

However, maybe these researches misinterpreted what they were seeing. For example, another paper found that the level of LDL in those with FH was not related to their risk CVD. It was purely the level of clotting factors that was related to CVD. This paper entitled: ‘Coronary artery disease and haemostatic variables in heterozygous familial hypercholesterolaemia.’

‘Haemostatic variables were measured in 61 patients with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolaemia, 32 of whom had evidence of coronary heart disease. Age adjusted mean concentrations of plasma fibrinogen and factor VIII were significantly higher in these patients than in the 29 patients without coronary heart disease, but there were no significant differences in serum lipid concentrations between the two groups. Comparisons in 30 patients taking and not taking lipid lowering drugs showed lower values for low density lipoprotein cholesterol, high density lipoprotein cholesterol and antithrombin III, and a higher high density lipoprotein ratio while receiving treatment. The results suggest that hypercoagulability may play a role in the pathogenesis of coronary heart disease in patients with familial hypercholesterolaemia.’4

So it is not the high LDL? It is the raised blood clotting factors that are found in some, but not all of those with FH. As you can see, it is not straightforward at all.

Just to complicate the picture further, here is a paper strongly suggesting that HDL is directly anti-coagulant.

‘Native HDL prevents platelet hyperreactivity by limiting intraplatelet cholesterol overload, as well as by modulating platelet signalling pathways after binding platelet HDL receptors such as scavenger receptor class B type I (SR-BI) and apoER2′. The antithrombotic properties of native HDL are also related to the suppression of the coagulation cascade and stimulation of clot fibrinolysis. Furthermore, HDL stimulates the endothelial production of nitric oxide and prostacyclin, which are potent inhibitors of platelet activation. Thus, HDL’s antithrombotic actions are multiple and therefore, raising HDL may be an important therapeutic strategy to reduce the risk of arterial and venous thrombosis.’ 5

And what about VLDL?

There is a considerable body of evidence supporting an association between hypertriglyceridaemia (high level of VLDL), a hypercoagulable state and atherothrombosis. A disorder of triglyceride metabolism is a key feature of the metabolic syndrome that increases risk of both ischaemic heart disease and type 2 diabetes approximately 3-fold. An increasing prevalence of obesity and metabolic syndrome is likely to contribute markedly to the prevalent ischaemic heart in the foreseeable future, and therefore it is crucial to understand mechanisms linking hypertriglyceridaemia and a hypercoagulable state. Activation of platelets and the coagulation cascade are intertwined. VLDL and remnant lipoprotein concentrations are often increased with the metabolic syndrome. These lipoproteins have the capacity to activate platelets and the coagulation pathway, and to support the assembly of the prothrombinase complex. VLDL also upregulates expression of the plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 gene and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 antigen…6 etc.

You can go back and forward in this area, finding research that contradicts itself upside down and inside out again. What I think I know for certain is the following:

  • High LDL levels/familial hypercholesterolemia is closely associated with increased blood coagulation (in a high percentage of those with FH, though not all) – through many different interrelated mechanisms. Some genetic, some possibly directly due to LDL itself.
  • VLDL (triglyceride) seems to increase blood coagulation – and this seems a very consistent finding
  • HDL has anticoagulant effects

I don’t know how powerful these different pro and anti-coagulant effects are, but they certainly exist. To an extent I could just say what does it matter if LDL does, or does not increase blood coagulation directly – but is simply associated with blood clotting abnormalities. It all fits within the processes that I have outlined in this series of blogs. Namely, anything that increases the risk of blood clotting increases the risk of CVD. And LDL (directly, or through genetic association) does increase the risk.

However, I thought it would be dishonest of me not to highlight the fact that there could well be a causal association between LDL (and VLDL) and CVD. Also there does seem to be a causal protective mechanism provided by HDL.

Or, to put this another way, perhaps all the experts were (a bit) right all along. Even if they have consistently promoted a process that does not make any sense at all i.e. LDL leaks into artery walls causing inflammation and plaque growth etc.

A further proviso is that I cannot see that the LDL/VLDL/HDL effects are very strong. After all I just co-authored a paper showing that higher LDL levels in the elderly are associated with increased life expectancy and a slight reduction in CVD risk. [There are many other factors clouding the issue here – too many to discuss in one go]. Confused yet… welcome to my world.

So where did I get to. I think I got to the point where I accept that:

  • LDL is pro-coagulant and – at very high levels e.g. in FH – increases the risk of CVD [though it is difficult to disentangle this from intertwined genetic pro-coagulant factors]
  • VLDL is pro-coagulant, and increases the risk of CVD
  • HDL is anticoagulant and protects against CVD

Which then brings onto statins, and how they work. First to re-iterate that statins do reduce the risk of CVD [Something, I have never disputed]. However, they do it not by lowering LDL, but because they have anticoagulant effects. Not that potent, about the same as aspirin, but the effect does exist.

Here from a paper entitled ‘statins and blood coagulation’:

The 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl (HMG)-coenzyme A (CoA) reductase inhibitors (statins) have been shown to exhibit several vascular protective effects, including antithrombotic properties, that are not related to changes in lipid profile. There is growing evidence that treatment with statins can lead to a significant downregulation of the blood coagulation cascade, most probably as a result of decreased tissue factor expression, which leads to reduced thrombin generation…. Treatment with statins can lead to a significant downregulation of the blood coagulation cascade….’ 7 An effect confirmed by their protection against DVT.

‘Venous thromboembolism (VTE) includes both deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism. The 2009 JUPITER trial showed a significant decrease in DVT in non-hyperlipidemic patients, with elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, treated with rosuvastatin.’ 8 Yet, the experts continue to tell us that statins work, purely, by lowering LDL levels. Ho hum.

Whilst I could have written this series and simply pushed LDL, VLDL and HDL to one side. I thought I needed to bring them into the discussion. Not to dismiss them but, I hope, to explain what their role within CVD may actually be – pro and anti-coagulant agents. Here is where they fit, and make sense. Looking at lipoproteins in the light also helps to explain how statins actually work.

4: Br Heart j 1985; 53: 265-8

What causes heart disease part XVI

When you start thinking about things in a new way it is funny where it takes you. You end up seeing connections, where you may previously only have seen confusion. You see links where they could not, or should not, seemingly exist before. In this blog, I am going to take you from migraine to sickle cell disease, and explain how they both cause CVD – and how they both do it through exactly the same underlying mechanisms.

Before reading on, perhaps you might like to think about how this can possibly work … It is always much more satisfying to work things out for yourself. Or maybe that’s just me.

To begin. As you will have picked up from this blog, I believe that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is, essentially, a disease created by endothelial damage and/or dysfunctional blood clotting. With a bit of impaired clot repair thrown in. I spend too much of my life tracking down anything, and everything, that may cause CVD to see if this hypothesis fits – or does not.

Which is why I was interested to see a headline that appeared very recently on Doctors Net (A website for doctors in the UK). It was entitled Migraine cardiovascular link examined’. Up to this point, I had not realised that migraine and CVD were related. So it was something new to me:

As the article, in the BMJ, went on to say:

Young women who suffer from regular migraine attacks appear to have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, researchers warn today.

Women are three to four times more likely to experience regular migraines. The condition has previously been linked to an increased risk of stroke, but although the physiology of migraine has close links to the vascular system, the way in which migraine increases risk of stroke is unclear.

A team led by Professor Tobias Kurth of the Institute of Public Health in Berlin, Germany, looked at this association, and the link with cardiovascular disease in general.

They used details on 115,541 women aged 25 to 42 years at baseline, taking part in the US Nurses’ Health Study II, which began in 1989. Over the 20 years of follow-up, 15% of the women were diagnosed with migraine.

Cardiovascular disease was 50% more likely among the women with migraine. Heart attack was 39% more likely, stroke 62% more likely, and these women were 73% more likely to have a revascularization procedure.

In addition, women with migraine were 37% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than women without migraine, and the risk was not significantly altered by age, smoking, high blood pressure, or use of hormone medications.1

So here is, yet another possible cause of CVD. There was no explanation put forward in this study, it was simply an observation. However, I find that unexplained observations are where the answers lie. These are the ghosts in the machine. Truths that occasionally emerge from the dark depths of the ocean, like oarfish, or giant squid, before slipping back into the abyss.

When I see a study like this, the first thing that I do is to look for an association with blood clotting, or endothelial damage, or both. If there is no association, then my hypothesis has suffered a serious blow. On the other hand…

So, taking a deep breath, I looked around the research done in this area. There has not been a great deal, but to my relief. [Yes, I know, a true scientist should never get too attached their own ideas. But, you know what, it’s hard not to….] To my relief I found that migraine is associated with, or causes, blood clotting abnormalities – and also damage to the endothelium.

Just to quote one short section from the Stroke Association:

Migraine-Related Stroke – There is evidence that patients with migraine, particularly migraine with aura, have an increased risk of stroke. The mechanism for this is unclear, although migraine is associated with abnormalities of platelet, coagulation and blood vessel inner lining function, and that may contribute to an increased risk of stroke.’ 2

Just to add further to the connections that potentially open up, I was interested to stumble across a case study where a patient’s migraines were ‘cured’ by using warfarin.

An unusual case report on the possible role of warfarin in migraine prophylaxis


Background: Migraine is a complex disease whose physiopathological mechanisms are still not completely revealed.

Findings: We describe an unusual case, not yet described in literature, of a patient who reported migraine remission, but still presented aura attacks, since starting a therapy with Warfarin.

Conclusions: This case report brings out new questions on the role of the coagulation, especially the blood coagulation pathway, in migraine with aura pathogenesis, and on the possibility to use vitamin K inhibitors, Warfarin or new generation drugs, as possible therapy to use in migraine prophylaxis.3

I must admit I never saw that one coming. Migraines can be treated with warfarin? Though, I suppose, had I thought things through, I might have worked it out. Or maybe not.

Anyway, pulling this information together, we now know that migraines increase the risk of CVD, – more often strokes than heart disease. When you look deeper, you find that migraines are also associated with endothelial dysfunction, and blood clotting abnormalities.

As should be pretty obvious, this all fits perfectly with the ‘CVD is all caused by blood clotting’ hypothesis. On the other hand, if you would like to try to explain how migraines cause CVD through any another process, please let me know. Of course, it could be that another deeper process causes both blood clotting abnormalities, and migraines, but that is for another day.

Of greater interest to me is that, whilst I was studying migraine and CVD, another condition kept popping up on the search criteria. Something that was, again, completely new to me. Which is that there is a very strong association between sickle cell disease (SCD), and CVD. I had never previously thought to link these conditions. However, a number of the migraine articles pointed me towards sickle cell disease (SCD).

Sickle cell disease is a genetic condition whereby red blood cells are malformed and have a sickle shape. This accounts for the name. It is a genetic mutation that, in milder forms, is thought to to protect against malaria, because mildly sickle shaped red blood cells are more difficult for the malaria parasite to enter. However, in its more severe forms, sickle cell disease is quite damaging. Sickle cells can burst, get stuck in smaller blood vessels, form clots in blood vessels in the eyes – leading to blindness, lung and kidney problems etc.

To cut a long story short, in sickle cell disease there are all sorts of ‘clotting’ problems. There is also the potential for significant endothelial damage due to the abnormal shape and function of the red blood cells. Given this, you might expect increased risk of CVD. Which there is, as covered in the paper ‘Atherosclerosis in sickle cell disease – a review:’

Ischemic (lack of oxygen) complications are the major causes of morbidity and mortality in patients with sickle cell disease (SCD). The pathogenesis (what causes these problems) of these complications is poorly understood. Ischemic events in these patients have been attributed to the effects of hemoglobin polymerization, resulting in rigid, dense and sickled cells trapped in the microcirculation. Therefore, vascular occlusion is often considered to be synonymous with occlusion of microvasculature by sickled red blood cells. Several observations suggest that other factors may also play a pathogenic role. Atherosclerosis is one of these factors and may affect many arteries all over the body.

It is fascinating what you find, when you decide to look at things from a different perspective. You start looking at the connection between migraine, CVD, and blood clotting, and end up studying sickle cell disease. I must admit that I get a great sense of satisfaction when I come across facts like this. Somewhat like completing a jigsaw puzzle. ‘Yes, hoorah, it all fits. In fact, it all fits perfectly.’

Indeed, the article on Atherosclerosis in sickle cell disease goes on to bring in Nitric Oxide and L-arginine. I have covered both of these factors in some in detail earlier on in this series. [Sorry this section a bit jargon filled]:

‘The sickling process leads to vascular occlusion, tissue hypoxia and subsequent reperfusion injury, thus inducing inflammation and endothelial injury. This causes a blunted response to nitric oxide (NO) synthase inhibition. In recent years, investigators’ attention has been attracted by the effects of chronic hemolysis on vascular bed integrity and function in patients with congenital hemolytic anemias. Hemolysis results in the release of free hemoglobin.

On one hand, it scavenges NO by oxidizing it to nitrate and releasing red blood cell arginase. On the other hand, it hydrolyzes L-arginine, the substrate of NO synthase. Because of these effects, NO bioavailability and its action is limited. All the previous mechanisms cause impairment of NO production. NO is an important vascular relaxing factor and its deficiency would lead to large artery stiffness. In addition, NO promotes general vascular homeostasis by decreasing endothelial expression of adhesion molecules, decreasing platelet activation, and inhibiting fibroblast, smooth muscle cell and endothelial cell mitogenesis and proliferation.

In one short section on SCD we have virtually everything I have been writing about in this series so far. There is:

  • Reduced NO synthesis
  • Damage to the endothelium
  • Increased risk of blood clotting in general
  • Increased platelet activation and adhesion
  • Inhibition of endothelial cell repair and proliferation
  • Increased risk of CVD and accelerated atherosclerotic plaque development

Another highly important point here is, as follows. You may recall that I said atherosclerosis almost never forms in the blood vessels in the lungs (pulmonary blood vessels). The only time it does is if you have pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the blood vessels in the lungs).

Well, I just found out that if you have sickle cells disease, you are at high risk of developing atherosclerosis in the lungs:

The pulmonary artery is one of the common sites of atherosclerosis in sickle cell disease (SCD). Autopsy of the pulmonary artery in patients with SCD showed that approximately one-third of the patients had histological evidence of medial hypertrophy, intimal proliferation, and subintimal proliferation and fibrosis.’

Now you may not think this is particularly important, but to me it is a killer fact. Atherosclerosis in the pulmonary arteries is something so unusual that when you find it, you are looking at the mother lode. If you can cause atherosclerosis here, then you are gazing at a true underlying cause, with all other risk factors stripped out.

Here is the process (or processes) revealed. Deep joy. It is not often that I come across a fact that I had no idea existed before. Certainly not one that confirms so perfectly everything that I have been saying.

I realise that I have repeatedly stated that the primary purpose of science should be to contradict hypotheses. Here, all I have ended up doing, is providing more facts that support my own hypothesis. I would ask you to believe that I started out looking for a contradiction. I ended up with greater confirmation. Confirmation from places where I had never previously even thought to look.


1: BMJ 1 June 2016; doi: 10.1136/bmj.i2610




What causes heart disease part XV

Scientific hypotheses are easy. You can make up thirty a day if you want. In the arena of cardiovascular disease, I have watched many a hypothesis spring to life in the middle of a conversation. For example, I was at a meeting where an ‘expert’ was attempting to describe what foods cause CVD. Pizza was held up as a very unhealthy food.

I pointed out that there had only been one study done on pizza consumption and CVD. It showed, very clearly, that the more pizza you ate, the lower your risk of CVD. Quite a strong protective effect as a matter of fact. The study was done in Italy.

The moment the geographical location was mentioned, the expert simply replied. ‘Oh yes, but Italian Pizzas are far healthier than pizzas in the UK.’ Thus, ‘the healthy Italian Pizza hypothesis’, was simply plucked from thin air. It was based on no evidence whatsoever, but it seemed reasonable to the expert at the time I suppose. Who knows, it may even be true. Although I suspect not.

Now, I have nothing against the creation of any scientific hypothesis that anyone cares to put forward. Science progresses, primarily, through the development of new ideas. But if you are going to propose a new hypothesis it is beholden upon you to do something that few people then seem willing to do. You need to try and disprove it. There is no point looking for supporting data, you can find supportive data for almost any idea you decide to come up with.

There is a fairly well-known and humorous explanation for CVD (humorous the first fifty times you are told it anyway) that goes like this:

  • Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us
  • Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us
  • Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us
  • Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us
  • Germans drink beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and sufferfewer heart attacks than us
  • The French eat foie-gras, full fat cheese and drink red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us

CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you

How would I disprove the ‘speaking English’ hypothesis? Assuming, that is, I could be bothered. I would point out that, currently, speaking Ukrainian kills you. Ukrainians have ten times the rate of CVD of the UK, and the US. Ergo, it is not speaking English that kills you. Next.

Moving to slightly more serious things. Disproving is where I started with in my long term search for a hypothesis about CVD. I did not start out with my own hypothesis. I started out trying to disprove other hypotheses.

Which inevitably meant that I started with the diet-heart/cholesterol hypothesis, as this was, and remains, the number one hypothesis in the area. I am not going to go through all the refutations again. Suffice to say that it failed in so many ways that it was clearly bunk.

Of course, this left me thinking, if CVD has nothing to do with saturated fat in diet, or cholesterol levels, it must be something else. What could that something else be? I began by looking at stress (I realise that the term stress is not remotely precise). I started with the thought that stress, whilst eating, could be a cause/the cause. If you are stressed you will be releasing stress hormones, these antagonise insulin, so when you eat blood sugar levels spike and VLDL levels spike etc.

I became interested in the idea that we measure almost all metabolic parameters e.g. blood sugar, VLDL, cortisol, glucagon in the fasting period. Yet, perhaps all the damage was being done within two hours of eating. So it seemed that we may, to use an analogy, be trying to understand football by visiting a football stadium only before and after the match is being played. ‘Blimey, nothing different ever happens here at all.’

I felt I was onto something, but thinking then moved on to a more general stress hypothesis. I felt that I got most of the way to creating a perfect scientific hypothesis. I had causes and pathways and a mass of supportive data. However, I could still find plenty people with an increased risk of CVD who were not in any way stressed. They had such things as antiphospholipid syndrome (Hughes syndrome). Or they were children with Kawasaki’s disease. Or they had type II diabetes, or they were taking drugs, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or Avastin. Or… the list went on.

Equally, I could find factors that reduced the risk of CVD, that had nothing to do with reducing stress. For example, aspirin (not a massive effect, but it does exist). Von Willibrand disease, omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, vitamin C. As with causal factors, the ‘nothing to do with stress’ list went on.

So, what did this mean? That stress did not cause CVD, or that it caused only one type of CVD. Or it caused CVD through a completely different process than other causes of CVD? It was at this point that I began to realise I was looking at things the wrong way round. There was no point in saying what things may, or may not, cause CVD – and compiling an ever-lengthening list of ‘risk’ factors.

I had to work out the process through which any factor may operate, both causal and protected. As some of you will know, in this series, I have pointed this out before… many times. But I think that it cannot be said often enough.

So I turned the entire thinking process inside out, and started again. I began by asking the question, what are atherosclerotic plaques? What do they consist of? What do they contain? It became very clear that they are primarily blood clots – in various stages of development and repair.

Having recognised this, I went further back, or forward, to look at the final event in CVD. This is, basically, the formation of a blood clot. Heart attacks occur when a blood clot blocks an artery supplying blood to the heart (there are caveats here, but I am not going into them at this point). Stokes occur when a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain (further caveats).

There is little disagreement that the blood clot is the final event in CVD. Most acute treatments for heart attacks and strokes are, essentially, ways of removing any clot that has formed. You can use aspirin, or more potent clot busters, or you can stick in a catheter to remove the clot/open it up/stick in a stent. You can do a bypass, diverting the blood round the clot… etc. Interventional cardiology could, pretty, accurately be described as ‘blood clot management.’

Many of the drugs used to prevent heart attacks and/or strokes are also anti-coagulants e.g. aspirin, Clopidogrel, warfarin, apixiban etc. [Statins are also potent anticoagulants]. Yet, and yet, no-one seemed willing even to countenance the possibility that blood clots also cause atherosclerotic plaque development. ‘Yes, blood clots kill you, but they have nothing to do with plaque formation.’

‘What, even when plaque contain such things as red blood cells, cholesterol crystals, fibrin, fibrinogen and Lp(a) and….’ the list of things found in both blood clots and plaques is very long.

But of course no expert can agree to this ‘blood clot’ hypothesis. To do so means that you have to discard the cholesterol hypothesis. Which ain’t going to happen anytime soon. So we currently have the dual hypothesis. Cholesterol causes plaques to form, then blood clots kill you. The ‘atherothrombosis’ hypothesis. Which can look as though the mainstream is agreeing about the importance of thrombosis, but is actually a way of keeping the cholesterol hypothesis alive.

For a while I half agreed with this atherothrombosis hypothesis, but the more I thought about it, the more it started to fall apart. I began to focus down on one thought. Can you explain CVD though the ‘abnormal’ development of blood clots alone? Can you link any and all factors, known to cause CVD by their impact on one of two things:

  • Endothelial damage (which triggers blood clot formation)
  • Increasing blood coagulability (making clots more like to form, become bigger and/or less easy to break down)

Then I started writing out a list of things that I knew did one, or both, of these things. There was no particular order to this:

  • Smoking
  • Cocaine use
  • Cortisol
  • Kawasaki’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Kidney failure
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories e.g. brufen, naproxen
  • Biomechanical stress (within arteries)
  • Dehydration
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
  • Antiphospholipid syndrome (Hughes syndrome)
  • Vitamin C deficiency
  • Raised fibrinogen levels (key clotting factor)
  • Homocysteine
  • Bacterial infections inc. gingivitis
  • Increased plasminogen activator inhibitor – (1 PAI-1) levels (critical factor in blood clot repair/breakdown)

I could have kept going, but that is enough for now. What do all of these things have in common. They increase the risk of atherosclerotic plaque formation, death from CVD. Most importantly, of course, they cause endothelial damage and/or increased blood coagulability. And I could not, and cannot, think of anything else that links them all together.

Then I started to think about factors that reduce the risk of CVD.

  • Exercise (overall, not whilst doing it)
  • Moderate alcohol consumption
  • Aspirin
  • Clopidogrel (expensive aspirin)
  • ACE- inhibitors (a blood pressure lowering agent)
  • Yoga
  • Haemophilia
  • Statins
  • Von Willibrand disease (lack of a specific clotting factor in platelets)
  • B vitamins (enough to reduce homocysteine)
  • Adequate Vit C (no idea what the correct intake should be)
  • Potassium (higher consumption reduces platelets sticking together)
  • Vitamin D
  • Nitric Oxide (through sunlight – and other nutrients e.g. l-arginine)
  • Magnesium (and other micronutrients)

Again, I could keep going. What do all of these things have in common. Well, once again, they either protect the endothelium, or they reduce blood clotting. And they all reduce the risk of CVD.

To my mind there was, and is, an almost perfect correlation. But, as I said earlier. Looking for supportive data is all very well. Can you find the black swan? Or black swans. Are there facts that completely contradict the ‘it’s all to do with blood clots’ hypothesis of CVD?

Warfarin could be one such black swan. Warfarin reduces the risk of stroke (in atrial fibrillation), but it does not really reduce the risk of heart attacks. It is a very powerful anti-coagulant, so surely it should do both. Yet it does not. Why not? Is this a black swan, or can it be explained?

My conjecture is, as follows.

Warfarin is a vitamin K antagonist. It is active in the liver, and interferes with the production of a number of clotting factors (mainly prothrombin and factor VII). This tends to inhibit clots forming, spontaneously, within the blood itself. Which is why warfarin is very effective in Atrial Fibrillation.

In Atrial Fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart fibrillate (twitch rapidly) so some of the blood tends to get stuck in the upper chambers (the atria). Blood in stasis tends to start clotting. A clot forms, it is then ejected into the lower chamber (the ventricles) where it is then immediately pumped out into the rest of the body. These clots can get stuck anywhere the blood vessel narrows sufficiently – often in the brain, causing a stroke.

Warfarin also works well when you have blood stasis in the veins. For instance, if you break your leg, you will be put in a cast. At which point, due to physical immobility, the blood tends to stop flowing freely, if at all. At which point clots can form, a deep venous thrombosis – DVT. This can then break off and travel through your heart into your lungs causing a pulmonary embolus (PE), which can kill you. Warfarin tends to stop this ‘stasis’ blood clot formation. [Long distance flight and sitting anywhere for a long time can have the same effect]

So why does warfarin have little effect on the clots that cause myocardial infarction. This is probably because damage to the endothelium – the trigger for all the other downstream problems – exposes tissue factor (TF) to the blood. Tissue factor sits within the artery wall itself, and it is the big daddy of clotting.

As you can imagine, the body views damage to an arterial wall as a potential emergency situation that requires immediate and powerful clotting. A damaged artery wall exposes TF Once TF is in play, it will ride straight over such things as a lack of factor VII and prothrombin. TF will directly drive platelets to stick together, and form a plug over the area of damage. It can also directly activate thrombin etc.

Thus, whilst warfarin will prevent the slower ‘stasis’ clots from forming, it will have little effect on the emergency ‘damage to the artery wall’ clotting caused by exposure to TF. I am not going into any more detail on this, but it could be said that warfarin is a good ‘intrinsic’ anticoagulant. But has far less impact on the ‘extrinsic’ clotting system.

On the other hand aspirin, which prevents platelets sticking together, will have a more significant effect on reducing clot formation after activation of TF, as will Clopidogrel, as will a lack of von Willibrand factor (as found in Von Willibrand disease). This, to my mind at least, fits with the fact that ‘less potent’ anticoagulant factors can reduce risk of heart attacks (albeit by differing amounts), whereas warfarin does not.

So, the lack of effect of warfarin on heart attacks can be understood, in relation to where it actually acts in the coagulation system. In addition, because warfarin is a vitamin K antagonist, and vitamin K appears to protect against the build of calcium in various tissues, warfarin accelerates calcification in artery wall. Which could be a further problem in itself – leading to a higher rate of CVD.

Now, you could think this is all rather convoluted. An attempt to explain why an apparent contradiction is not a contradiction all. You could, of course, be right to think this. But firmly believe that the lack of effect on warfarin, on heart attacks, can be explained. Through a deeper understanding of the clotting system. In fact, the different effects of different anticoagulants on CVD risk supports rather than undermines the hypothesis.

Perhaps, now, you may gain an inkling as to why it has taken me so many, many, years to try and establish the true underlying cause of CVD. It did not take too long, at least once I got my thinking the right way round, to work out that blood clotting may be the underlying process that underpins CVD. What has really taken the time is looking for contradictions.

And, in the spirit of true scientific endeavour, I welcome as many attacks/contradictions as people can think of. What does not kill a scientific hypothesis can only make it stronger.

What causes heart disease part XIV

I have been much cheered by all the discussion on my series about what caused heart disease a.k.a. cardiovascular disease. Because of various comments, my series has gone off in a few different directions. I realise that not everyone agrees with everything (or anything?) I have to say, and that several issues I thought were clear, clearly are not. This is fine. Science should progress by discussion and debate and contradictions.

In this blog, in order to answer some of what people have written (albeit indirectly), I am going to look at two of the conventional risk factors for CVD in a bit more detail, and try to explain why they represent a major problem for conventional thinking.

As many of you may have discovered, if you go to see your GP – almost anywhere in the world – they will use a list of ‘standard’ risk factors to calculate your risk of a cardiovascular ‘event’ over the next five or ten years.

There are a few of these calculators, but two of most commonly used are probably QRISK2 and the ASCVD, created by the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association. [ASCVD = atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease]. I cannot find out where the term QRISK comes from – perhaps someone can help me.

The ASCVD is a bit shorter than QRISK. It looks at:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Total Cholesterol
  • HDL
  • Systolic blood pressure
  • Diastolic blood pressure
  • Treatment for blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoker

The QRISK is a UK developed risk calculator. It is a bit bigger and more complicated than ASCVD. It looks at:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Systolic blood pressure
  • Diastolic blood pressure
  • Total Cholesterol
  • Total Cholesterol/HDL ratio
  • Serum triglyceride
  • Smoking
  • Glucose Impaired glucose tolerance/diabetes
  • Left Ventricular hypertrophy
  • Central obesity
  • South Asian (South Asians, in the UK, have a far higher risk of CVD)
  • Family history of CVD

Now, there is no doubt that all of the factors on both lists are associated with CVD – to a greater or lesser degree. At least they are for the US and UK population currently living. It has to be pointed out thought, that if you use QRISK in France, you have to divide the risk by 4… ahem, slight problem.

A further problem is that it has been discovered that they both vastly over-estimate risk in US and UK population.

‘A widely recommended risk calculator for predicting a person’s chance of experiencing a cardiovascular disease event — such as heart attack, ischemic stroke or dying from coronary artery disease — has been found to substantially overestimate the actual five-year risk in adults overall and across all sociodemographic subgroups. The study by Kaiser Permanente was published today in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The actual incidence of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease events over five years was substantially lower than the predicted risk in each category of the ACC/AHA Pooled Cohort equation:

  • For predicted risk less than 2.5 percent, actual incidence was 0.2 percent
  • For predicted risk between 2.5 and 3.74 percent, actual incidence was 0.65 percent
  • For predicted risk between 3.75 and 4.99 percent, actual incidence was 0.9 percent
  • For predicted risk equal to or greater than 5 percent, actual incidence was 1.85 percent

“From a relative standpoint, the overestimation is approximately five- to six-fold,” explained Dr. Go. “Translating this, it would mean that we would be over-treating a good many people based on the risk calculator.”’1

So, you feed your risk factors in a risk calculator that took many years to create, using data carefully gathered by experts from the world of cardiology, and your true risk is overestimated five to six fold. Excellent. That mean millions upon millions of people have been told to take a statin based on a calculation that is so inaccurate as to be virtually meaningless. [This was always going to happen, because risk was established using clinical data from decades ago, since when, CVD rates have fallen dramatically]

Anyway, leaving the horrible inaccuracy of these risk factor calculators aside for the moment. What of the risk factors themselves? I am not going to look at all of them here, just two. Firstly, age. There is no doubt that age is the single most important risk for CVD. Your risk at 65 is around ten times as high as at age 35 – no matter what the overall risk may be in your particular country.

In fact, if you have no other factors at all, in the US, your future CVD risk at the age of 67 is so high (according to the calculator) it means that you are advised to go on a statin immediately, for the rest of your life. Ho hum. For women it is a few years later. ‘Here’s your first pension payment – with built in statin prescription.’

I find it fascinating that almost everyone seems to accept age as a risk factor for CVD, without really questioning why this should be so. Age does not necessarily increase the risk of diseases. There are many which are more common when you are younger, and the risk diminishes as you age.

The argument seems to be that CVD slowly progresses. Thus, as you get older, the risk increases. Yes, perhaps. However, if you have no conventional risk factors for CVD, why should it progress at all? At the risk of repeating myself, I shall repeat myself. You have no risk factors for CVD. Yet, as you grow older, your risk of CVD reaches the point where you are statinated. Because your future risk is so high.

But what is causing the atherosclerosis in your arteries to develop. Age? Through what process can age created atherosclerotic plaques, assuming no other risk factors? Raised cholesterol… well you don’t have raised cholesterol. Raised BP? Well, you don’t have raised BP. Smoking, well, you don’t smoke… etc.

The other major risk factor where we have an acceptance of a fact – without even an attempt at explanation is gender. In most populations younger men have a far higher risk of CVD than women. The different in risk varies greatly, but averages at about three to one. By which I mean, a women aged 55 women will have around one third the risk of a man aged 55 (living in the same country). Even if they have exactly the same risk factors.

For years it was stated, with great confidence, that this difference was due to female sex hormones. These hormones in some – never fully stated fashion – protected women against CVD. It has now been proven, beyond a molecule of doubt, that this is not true. Female sex hormones do not protect against CVD. Indeed, they probably accelerate it.

So, what does protect women against CVD. There is no explanation. It just is. Feed gender into the calculator and a different risk pops out for men and women. Why, because men and women, have a different risk of CVD. Why? Because they do. [BTW, the South Asian issue is much the same. Multiply the risk by 1.4. Why, because you do].

The reality is that age, and gender, are two of the most powerful risk factors for CVD. In that, if you use the ASCVD or QRISK calculator and change only age, and gender, the risk will go from close to zero, in a young woman to dark red – danger, danger, in an older man. Even if you set all other risk factors to zero.

It has always baffled me that experts in cardiology seem utterly unconcerned about this. They do not even consider that this is an issue. However, if the two most powerful risk factors you have for CVD, cannot be explained, are not explained, then you really have a major problem. Even if you cannot even comprehend that you do.

If you cannot explain why age, and gender, cause CVD… you cannot explain CVD.


What causes heart disease – part XIII

Heart disease and inflammation.

A few people have sent me links to a recent paper called ‘Inflammation and Atherosclerosis.’ This was published in Circulation, and the authors were: Peter Libby, MD; Paul M. Ridker, MD; Attilio Maseri, MD. Remember two of the names.

Here is a relatively long section of the abstract:

‘Atherosclerosis, formerly considered a bland lipid storage disease, actually involves an ongoing inflammatory response. Recent advances in basic science have established a fundamental role for inflammation in mediating all stages of this disease from initiation through progression and, ultimately, the thrombotic complications of atherosclerosis. These new findings provide important links between risk factors and the mechanisms of atherogenesis.

Clinical studies have shown that this emerging biology of inflammation in atherosclerosis applies directly to human patients. Elevation in markers of inflammation predicts outcomes of patients with acute coronary syndromes, independently of myocardial damage. In addition, low-grade chronic inflammation, as indicated by levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, prospectively defines risk of atherosclerotic complications, thus adding to prognostic information provided by traditional risk factors.

Moreover, certain treatments that reduce coronary risk also limit inflammation. In the case of lipid lowering with statins, this anti-inflammatory effect does not appear to correlate with reduction in low-density lipoprotein levels. These new insights into inflammation in atherosclerosis not only increase our understanding of this disease, but also have practical clinical applications in risk stratification and targeting of therapy for this scourge of growing worldwide importance.

This paper interested me for a number of reasons. I focused down for a few moments on the phrase ‘Atherosclerosis, formerly consider a bland lipid storage disease…’ Does this mean that the world is moving on… Atherosclerosis has nothing to do with lipids e.g. LDL a.k.a. ‘bad cholesterol’? Now that would be something. Especially as it was published in the mainstream CV journal ‘Circulation.’

It seems that these authors are trying to shift the thinking away from cholesterol to inflammation. However, before discussing anything else I wanted to point out something that most people may have missed – by looking at a bit of background on the authors. First, Paul Ridker, who ran the JUPITER study, and who is a hugely influential cardiologist.

It should be noted that Paul Ridker has a major interest in moving thinking about atherosclerosis from a lipid storage disorder to an inflammatory condition. Because he has patent on the high sensitivity CRP test (C-reactive protein).

‘Dr Ridker is named as a coinventor on patents filed by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital that relate to the use of inflammatory markers in cardiovascular disease.’

What this means is that every time someone uses a high sensitivity CRP test, Paul Ridker becomes a little bit richer. However, in this paper, this massive financial conflict of interest is not mentioned. Instead, we get Acknowledgements:

This work was supported in part by grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to Drs Libby (HL-34636, HL-48743, and HL-56985) and Ridker (HL-58755 and HL-63293), and by the Leducq Foundation (to Drs Libby and Ridker). Dr Ridker is also supported by a Distinguished Scientist Award from the Doris Duke Foundation. Dr Maseri is supported by a grant from Fondazione Internazionale di Ricerca Per il Cuore onlus

No conflicts Dr Ridker? Mind you, Paul Ridker does have considerable form in not disclosing his financial conflicts. Some years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association JAMA, was forced to publish a statement on ‘Unreported Financial Disclosures’ that were spotted in paper ‘Associations of LDL, Cholesterol, Non-HDL Cholesterol, and Apolipoprotein B levels With Risk of Cardiovascular Events Among Patients Treated with Statins: A meta-analysis.’

This statement mentioned many, many conflicts that the authors had failed to mention at the time. The section on Dr Ridker reads thus:

‘…Dr Ridker reports board membership of Merck Sharp and Dohme and receipt of a grant or pending grant to his institution from Amgen.’ [Amgen, as you may know are pushing PCSK-9 inhibitors]. This is covered in my book Doctoring Data.

Just to spell this out in a little more detail, Paul Ridker was an author on a meta-analysis of statins, yet failed to report that he was a board member of a pharmaceutical company (Merck) that marketed statins.

In truth, the moment I saw a paper promoting the ‘new idea’ that atherosclerosis is all due to inflammation, my antennae started to twitch. Especially when I knew that Paul Ridker was involved. A man who holds patents on a test for the inflammatory marker that we should be using.

I then immediately wondered, Is Paul Ridker now running a clinical trial on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, looking at the use of an anti-inflammatory agent to treat CVD. So, I had a little look round the internet. And guess what. Paul Ridker is, indeed, running a trial on an ant inflammatory for the treatment of CVD. The CANTOS study If you look down the list those on the committee running this study, you will find that Peter Libby is also on the steering committee. A conflict that remained unmentioned in the Circulation paper either.

What is the drug, it is Canakinumab. Here, from Wiki:

Canakinumab (INN, trade name Ilaris, previously ACZ885) is a human monoclonal antibody targeted at interleukin-1 beta. It has no cross-reactivity with other members of the interleukin-1 family, including interleukin-1 alpha.

Canakinumab was approved for the treatment of cryopyrin-associated periodic syndromes (CAPS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on June 2009[4] and by the European Medicines Agency in October 2009.CAPS is a spectrum of autoinflammatory syndromes including familial cold autoinflammatory syndrome, Muckle–Wells syndrome, and neonatal-onset multisystem inflammatory disease.

Canakinumab was being developed by Novartis for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis but this trial was completed in October 2009. Canakinumab is also in phase I clinical trials as a possible treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, gout and coronary artery disease. It is also in trials for Schizophrenia. In gout it may result in better outcomes than a low dose of a steroid but costs five thousand times more.

I thought I would highlight the final sentence, just to give you some idea of the potential cost of this drug, should it ever be marketed for the treatment of CVD.

I know that this may seem a diversion. However, I have been around the world of cardiovascular research for long enough to take nothing at face value. Here is a paper suggesting that atherosclerosis has little or nothing to do with lipids. It is primarily due to inflammation. Which is a reasonable hypothesis. But guess what, one of the authors has a patent for an inflammatory marker. He and another author are running a clinical study, funded by Novartis, on the use of an anti-inflammatory agent in CVD.

However, just because there is money in the background, it does not necessarily mean that everything written is wrong. Perhaps inflammation truly is the underlying cause of atherosclerosis. Many other people have been saying this for years. Some of them, I know, certainly believe it from a purely objective scientific perspective. For example, Duane Graveline – who writes a great deal about CVD on his blog, and is also a friend. He fully believes that atherosclerosis is an inflammatory condition, and he has no horse in the race.

My own take on this matter is slightly different. Yes, if you have a high C-reactive protein (CRP) level, this means that there is inflammation going on within the artery, and this is a sign of increased CVD risk. This is true, but what does it mean? Is the inflammation causing the CVD?

Whenever I see anyone stating that inflammation is a cause of anything I simply change the word inflammation to the word ‘healing,’ to see how sensible it then sounds. Inflammation is, in most cases, the way the body heals itself after injury. If you twist your ankle, it will become swollen and inflamed. The injury comes first, then you get the inflammation/healing. You would be hard pressed to state that inflammation causes twisted ankles.

Of course, there are some conditions where the inflammation itself can become greater than the original problem. Just to name three: Asthma, Crohn’s disease and Rheumatoid arthritis. In these diseases the body’s inflammatory/healing system becomes revved up, and starts attacking itself. This out of control inflammation can then lead to further problems downstream e.g. joint destruction. Such conditions are often ‘treated’ or controlled by anti-inflammatory agents e.g. steroids.

Equally, if you have Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), this is an ‘inflammatory’ disease, and you also have a severe vasculitis (inflammation of vasculature). As mentioned before SLE can raise the risk of CVD, in young women, by up to five thousand per cent. Case proven? Inflammation causes atherosclerosis?

No, I don’t think so. The sequence in SLE is that the vasculature is damaged (the endothelium is damaged). This stimulates the body to try and heal the damage. The healing is what we call inflammation and the C-reactive protein level goes up.

Get rid of the inflammation, and you will not be treating anything. You will simply be interfering with the healing process, and the CVD will, most likely, accelerate. Even if C-reactive protein levels go down, along with any observable inflammatory action.

If I may return for a moment or two to twisted ankles. To quote Dr Mirkin:

‘When I wrote my best-selling Sports medicine Book in 1978, I coined the term RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) for the treatment of athletic injuries. Ice has been a standard treatment for injuries and sore muscles because it helps to relieve pain caused by injured tissue. Coaches have used my “RICE” guideline for decades, but now it appears that both Ice and complete Rest may delay healing, instead of helping.’

As he goes on to say:

‘Anything That Reduces Inflammation Also Delays Healing [I cannot resist stating that, this is because inflammation is healing]

Anything that reduces your immune response will also delay muscle healing. Thus, healing is delayed by:

  • cortisone-type drugs,
  • almost all pain-relieving medicines, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen
  • immune suppressants that are often used to treat arthritis, cancer or psoriasis,
  • applying cold packs or ice, and
  • anything else that blocks the immune response to injury.’

At least Dr Mirkin has had the grace to admit that he was wrong. RICE reduces inflammation, but interferes with healing.

I am pretty certain that exactly the same thing will happen with ‘inflammation’ in CVD. I can state this with relative confidence, because the most powerful anti-inflammatory agent known to man are steroids/corticosteroids. Corticosteroids e.g. prednisolone, or hydrocortisone are potent anti-inflammatory agents, they are all based on the natural stress hormone cortisol – produced in the adrenal glands. Steroids = corticosteroids = cortisol (just about).

Cushing’s disease is a disease whereby too much cortisol is produce in the adrenal glands, usually due to a small tumour that overproduces the hormone. So, if you have Cushing’s disease, you have a powerful anti-inflammatory agent coursing through your blood vessels – at all times. And what is the effect of this on CVD?

‘In patients with Cushing’s syndrome (CS) cardiovascular complications determine a mortality rate four times higher than in an age- and gender-matched population.’

The same thing happens when you prescribe steroids, for various conditions:

‘Individuals who use glucocorticoids and exhibit iatrogenic (caused by the medicine) Cushing’s syndrome should be “aggressively” targeted for early screening of cardiovascular (CV) risk factors, say researchers.

Laurence Fardet (University College London, UK) and colleagues found that individuals with iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome who were prescribed glucocorticoids had a significantly higher incidence of CV events (including coronary heart disease, heart failure, or ischemic cerebrovascular events) than individuals prescribed glucocorticoids without iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome, or those not prescribed glucocorticoids.

Indeed, Cushing’s syndrome patients prescribed glucocorticoids had a CV incidence rate per 100 person-years at risk of 15.1 compared with 6.4 and 4.1 in those without Cushing’s but who were prescribed glucocorticoids and those not prescribed glucocorticoids, respectively.

Multivariate analysis revealed that iatrogenic Cushing’s patients had a 2.27-fold increased risk for coronary heart disease, a 3.77-fold increased risk for heart failure, and a 2.23-fold increased risk for ischemic cerebrovascular events.’

Proving a medical hypothesis is never that simple. However, if you believe that CVD is due to inflammation, then the world’s most potent anti-inflammatory agents ought to decrease CVD risk. Instead, it increases it by at least 400%. [Far more in some studies]

Other anti-inflammatory agents, known as Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) also greatly increase the risk of CVD. Vioxx (a potent NSAID), launched then pulled off the market, was estimated to have killed over one hundred thousand people in the US alone, from increasing CV risk.

In short, if CVD is primarily a disease of inflammation, then potent anti-inflammatory agents ought to reduce the risk. Instead they increase it massively. There is no doubt that inflammation is associated with CVD. Equally, if you measure C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), a high level is associated with a higher risk of CVD. However, it is not a cause, and if you try to reduce inflammation you will almost certainly increase the risk of CVD, not decrease it.

Ergo. Inflammation is sign of active CVD. That is all.

What causes heart disease part XII

Twelve parts and not finished yet. Oh well.

At this point I have an admission to make – having recently been thinking about things in a different way. Up to now I have been using a model which I have called the ‘four step’ process of cardiovascular disease.

  • Endothelial damage
  • Clot formation/dysfunctional clot formation
  • Clot repair/dysfunctional clot repair
  • The final, fatal, blood clot

I still think that all the parts of the model are correct. However, it is probably best to look at this more as overlapping sets, rather than steps. Whilst it is true that, until the endothelium is damaged, nothing else can happen in the process of atherosclerotic plaque development. Once endothelial damage has occurred we are not looking at step 2, step 3, step 4 – as a linear process. After the first episode of endothelial damage, all the processes can be going on, virtually simultaneously (apart from the final, fatal clot obviously).

So, the thought I wish to make at this point, is that we are looking at a dynamic process, where all processes overlap and interconnect. Endothelial damage can be going on, whilst dysfunctional clot repair is also happening, in addition to further clot formation.

I was trying to think of a good analogy. The best I could come up with was rust on paintwork on a car. Before you can get rust, you need some damage to the paintwork. After that other factors can come into play. Water, salt…. Um, water and a bit more salt…um. Well, I am sure that other things can make cars rust more quickly, but hope you get the general idea.

Thus, I have decided not to call this the four step process anymore. I shall call it the four process process. No, that is rather clumsy. I shall call it the…not sure. The quadrilateral process. The ‘four process clotting’ hypothesis of heart disease. Anyway. I hope you know what I am going on about (those that have read the previous eleven blogs may do).

The role of lipoproteins

Now I am going to take this discussion in a direction those who have followed my writing thus far, may not quite expect. I want to look at the role of lipoproteins in blood clotting. Mea Culpa. I have spent a great deal of time telling people that lipoproteins have nothing to do with CVD. This is not entirely true. They can, and do, play a role.

The reality is that virtually every substance that can be found in the blood has some influence on blood clotting – and there are an enormous number of substances in the blood. So, it should come as no real surprise to find that high density lipoprotein (HDL), low density lipoproteins (LDL) and very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) are also involved.

Just to recap on one lipoprotein, namely lipoprotein (a) (Lp(a). As I have discussed earlier Lp(a), is produced by the body to plug areas of damage to artery wall. It is found in animals that cannot synthesize vitamin C – and are therefore at high risk of scurvy. Scurvy is, primarily, a disease of connective tissue e.g. collagen (which needs vitamin C for its synthesis).

Breakdown of collagen leads to cracks in blood vessels, and Lp(a) plugs the gaps. Thus, here is one lipoprotein, the entire function of which, is to help form very strongly bound blood clots. What I wish to highlight here is that Lp(a) could also be called LDL(a). Because Lp(a) is LDL which has one different protein attached to it.

With LDL and Lp(a) being virtually identical, it should come as no surprise that LDL itself also has an impact on blood clotting, through a number of different mechanisms. Indeed, the interaction between LDL and blood clotting is mind-boggling in its complexity. I am not going into things here in too much detail, and I will just highlight one study. It has the catchy title: ‘LDL receptor cooperates with LDL receptor–related protein in regulating plasma levels of coagulation factor VIII in vivo.’ Here we go:

‘High levels of FVIII in plasma (greater than 1.5 U/mL) constitute a major risk factor for arterial and venous thrombosis in humans. Our observation that the up-regulation of hepatic LDLR protein expression in mice by gene transfer accelerated FVIII clearance from the circulation may be of therapeutic interest for patients who have elevated plasma FVIII levels. In humans, the up-regulation of LDLR protein is achieved by treatment with 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl co-enzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase inhibitors, also called statins. Statins are widely recognized in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia in humans.1

What is all this about? Basically if you have fewer LDL receptors (LDLR) there will be slower clearance of factor VIII (a key blood clotting factor) and the level in the blood rises. If you increase LDL receptors, by using statins, more factor VIII will be removed, and the risk of blood clotting will fall. So, here we have statins reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease by increasing the number of LDL receptors on the liver, which causes factor VIII (a blood clotting factor) to be removed from the blood.

In addition to this LDL interacts with platelets (the key blood cells involved in blood clotting) and the more LDL you have, the greater the tendency of platelets to clump together:

Platelets and lipoproteins are intimately involved in the pathogenesis of a wide variety of disease including atherosclerosis, thrombosis, and coronary heart disease. Evidence accumulated over the years suggests the possibility of a direct relationship between plasma lipoproteins and the hemostatic function of platelets. A number of studies demonstrated that native LDL enhanced the platelet sensitivity to stimulation and induced platelet activation.’2

In short, LDL activates platelets, and activate platelets are the starting point for blood clot formation.

The enormous complexity of the clotting system is further revealed when we look at High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) a.k.a. ‘good’ cholesterol. It is widely accepted that HDL is protective against death from CVD. It is generally believed that this protection comes through the process of reverse cholesterol transport i.e. HDL sucks cholesterol out of plaques. [Which I do not believe]

However, this is almost certainly not how HDL works. It has other important and potent effects on blood coagulation:

‘….Furthermore, HDL stimulates the endothelial production of nitric oxide and prostacyclin, which are potent inhibitors of platelet activation. Thus, HDL’s antithrombotic actions are multiple and therefore, raising HDL may be an important therapeutic strategy to reduce the risk of arterial and venous thrombosis.’3

VLDL (triglyceride)

Finally, for now, what to triglycerides do – with regard to blood clotting? More jargon here, but a very powerful statement linking VLDL/triglyceride levels to blood clotting.

‘Activation of platelets and the coagulation cascade are intertwined. VLDL and remnant lipoprotein concentrations are often increased with the metabolic syndrome. These lipoproteins have the capacity to activate platelets and the coagulation pathway, and to support the assembly of the prothrombinase complex. VLDL also upregulates expression of the plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 gene and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 antigen and activity, a process accompanied by platelet aggregation and clot formation. The surface membrane of activated platelets also supports the assembly and activity of the prothrombinase complex, resulting in further thrombin generation and amplification of the coagulation cascade.’4

If you don’t like the jargon, I will simplify:

  • High levels of LDL increase the risk of blood clots forming
  • High levels of HDL reduce the risk of blood clots forming
  • VLDL/triglycerides increase the risk of blood clots forming

To this, I will just add that ‘oxidised’ LDL is particularly pro-coagulant. It reduces Nitric Oxide synthesis in the endothelium, triggers platelet activation and damages the endothelium. Thus the condition known as ‘dyslipidaemia’ is particularly dangerous. Dyslipidaemia consists of low HDL, high VLDL and more ‘oxidised’ LDL. It is usually caused by insulin resistance a.k.a. the metabolic syndrome a.k.a. pre-diabetes.

So, ahem yes, blood borne lipoproteins do have a role to play in CVD. The role is not key, but it is there. I thought I should get that off my chest.



2: Yashika Gupta, V. Mallika* and D.K. Srivastava: ‘INTERACTION OF LDL AND PLATELETS IN ISCHAEMIC AND ISCHAEMIC RISK SUBJECTS’ Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry, 2005, 20 (1) 97 – 92



What causes heart disease part XI

This blog was going to be all about bringing together all of the strands about what causes heart disease. However, as often seems to happen, I was sent an article about a study that will be presented at the American College of Cardiology conference in Chicago. It led me down a slight detour, which is actually highly relevant to what I have been discussing.

At present I have no more details of this study than can be found in this press release.

Depressed CAD Patients May be at Higher Risk For MI, Death

Patients with coronary artery disease (CAD) who are depressed may have a much higher risk of myocardial infarction (MI) or death compared to those who are not depressed, according to research published March 23 which will be presented at ACC.16 in Chicago.

The study, conducted by Natalie Szpakowski, MD, and colleagues, included 22,917 patients who had been diagnosed with stable CAD following a coronary angiogram for chest pain. Results showed that the incidence of depression following a diagnosis of stable CAD was 18.8 percent. Patients who were female or who had more severe angina were more likely to be diagnosed with depression.

Further, depressed CAD patients were 83 percent more likely to die from any cause compared to those who were not depressed. They were also 36 percent more likely to present at a hospital for MI. Those who were diagnosed with depression 90 to 180 days following the diagnosis of CAD were at greatest risk.

According to the authors, these findings suggest that these patients may need to be screened for mood disorders, either by their family physician or their cardiologist.

“Based on these findings, there may be an opportunity to improve outcomes in people with coronary heart disease by screening for and treating mood disorders, but this needs to be further studied,” says Szpakowski. “Stable chronic angina due to narrowing of the coronary arteries is common, and our findings show that many of these patients struggle with depression. Our follow-up was at most five years, so many more might be affected.”1

Here, I thought, was an opportunity look at the process(es) by which depression can lead to heart disease. Up to now, the ‘experts’ in cardiology have stated that have heart disease causes depression…yawn. In this way they have dismissed the need to explain how, or why, depression could cause heart disease. Primarily, because this association cannot be explained using the currently accepted risk factors.

I thought this study represented a perfect opportunity to demonstrate exactly how, and why, depression will increase the risk of CVD, using the four step model for CVD (cardiovascular disease) which I have outlined in this series:

  • Endothelial damage
  • Clot formation/dysfunctional clot formation
  • Clot repair/dysfunctional clot repair
  • The final, fatal, blood clot

Your first thought may well be. How does depression damage the endothelium, or increase clot formation… or anything else in the four step process?

Well, clearly depression cannot directly damage the endothelium, or increase dysfunctional clot formation. However, the pathways that lead from depression to the four step process are easily defined, pretty straightforward, and supported by a mass of evidence, and they go like this.

Depression, from whatever cause, creates a dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis). Sorry to bring in the jargon straight away. However, in an attempt to keep this is simple as possible, think of the HPA-axis as the ‘unconscious’ system of hormones, and nerves, that control how we react to stress. We are talking about hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, glucagon and suchlike.

We are also talking about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which control heart rate, pupil dilation, blood flow to muscles, contraction of the bladder – so just about involved in everything we do. The HPA-axis can also be thought of as the central management system for the ‘flight or fight’ response.

When I use the term, ‘dysfunctional HPA-axis’, what I mean that the HPA-axis has been knocked out of whack. Usually this means it is overproducing stress hormones (particularly cortisol), and is overdriving the sympathetic nervous system. [Yes, I know it is actually all far more complex than this – for those who will undoubtedly write in to tell me so].

The type of things that damage the HPA-axis are: episodes of extreme stress, leading to PTSD, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia. In fact, most mental disorders will be reflected in a dysfunctional HPA-axis – to one degree or another.

If you want more information on this, I suggest going to Google and typing in depression and HPA-axis and/or stress. Or PTSD and HPA-axis dysfunction etc. You will find that much information springs to life before your very eyes. Essentially, you will begin to see how stress, mental illness, depression, anxiety etc. can all be linked through the HPA-axis, to one degree or another.

In short, if you suffer from stress/anxiety/depression… etc, your HPA-axis will go wrong. It will go wrong in many, many, different ways. The complexities and interactions of HPA-axis dysfunction stretch as far as the eye can see – and further. Believe me, I have disappeared over the horizon in many different directions over the years.

However, for the sake of brevity, and understanding, I will look at focus on one hormone, Cortisol. Cortisol is quite easy to measure, and it usually the hormone used to diagnose HPA-axis dysfunction. If the levels of cortisol are high, or low, or do not go up and down in a flexible fashion during the day, you have HPA-axis dysfunction.

Yes, unfortunately, measuring cortisol levels can result in much confusion. I can guarantee that if you look into this area you will end up mind-boggled and mired in apparent contradictions. Just to give one example. Finding a low cortisol level in the morning does not mean that do not have a ‘stress’ related problems, which would normally lead to high cortisol levels.

It simply means that your neuro-hormonal system has ‘burnt-out,’ leading to low cortisol levels in the morning (but overall higher levels over 24 hours). Somewhat similar as to what happens in diabetes where the pancreas eventually gives up the effort of producing insulin to overcome insulin resistance, and ‘burns-out.’ At which point you may well be diagnosed with type II diabetes.

Is that a good analogy… yes, I think so. Because I have seen papers stating that raised cortisol/stress/anxiety/depression cannot be causes of CVD, because many people with CVD have low cortisol levels in the morning. Bong! Wrong answer. A low cortisol level in the morning is probably the single most powerful indication of HPA-axis dysfunction. [Look up Bjorntorp on Google]

Anyhoo. Getting back to depression. If you are depressed, your HPA-axis will become dysfunctional. You will have abnormal cortisol levels, and you will become insulin resistant (because cortisol is a direct antagonist to insulin at many sites). In fact, severe depression can actually cause type II diabetes. Yes, you can look that up too.

Even if you don’t develop frank diabetes, you will end up with a whole serious of metabolic abnormalities. For the sake of keeping this short, you will also end up with blood clotting abnormalities too. Just to give one example, depression increases fibrinogen level in the blood.

‘In cross-sectional analyses, a stepwise increase in fibrinogen percentile categories was associated with a stepwise increase in risk of psychological distress, use of antidepressant medication, and hospitalization with depression.’ 2

Another important clotting factor is Plasminogen Activator Inhibitor-1 (PAI-1). This stops blood clots getting broken down/repaired after they form. Another quick quote here from a paper called ‘Mental disorders and thrombotic risk.’

‘Patients with psychosis, severe depression, or chronic stress are at increased risk for thromboembolism. Evidence suggests that tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) imbalance may play an important role in pathophysiology of mental and thromboembolic disorders. tPA facilitates clot dissolution and participates in several brain functions, including response to stress, learning, and memory. Depression is characterized by high PAI-1 level.’ 3

Linking it together

I hope that, at this point, it has become very clear how depression can, should, and in fact does link directly to an increase in the risk of CVD. Depression causes creates HPA-axis dysfunction and abnormal cortisol secretion, leading to insulin resistance and even diabetes (in severe cases).

This, in turn, stimulates the over-production of various clotting factors, such as fibrinogen. In addition, there is an increase in PAI-1, which prevents the breakdown/repair of the blood clot. [It causes other things too, but I am trying to keep this as concise as possible]

Clearly all this links directly to the four step model. Diabetes/raised blood sugar levels are directly damaging to the endothelium. Raised fibrinogen and PAI-1 are very powerful risk factors for CVD, primarily because they make the blood more likely to clot, and the clot more difficult to clear up.

In short, it is extremely straightforward to link depression to CVD, through the four step process:

  • Endothelial damage
  • Clot formation/dysfunctional clot formation
  • Clot repair/dysfunctional clot repair
  • The final, fatal, blood clot

Next, I will try to demonstrate how a number of other apparently unrelated conditions link to CVD through the ‘four-step’ process. Finally, I will put together, what I believe, are the ten (or so) best things you can do to protect yourself from CVD. I suspect you will already have worked out a number of them for yourself.

Then, anyone who cares to, can attack the four step hypothesis of heart disease and, I trust, do their best to pull it apart. I welcome the debate.





P.S. For those who like this sort of thing. Here is a paper by Bjrontorp which outlines how the HPA-axis dysfunction actually happens, and how it can be measured.

P.P.S. Bjorntorp worked out the main cause of CVD many years ago

What causes heart disease part X


Yes, part X, and not at the end… yet. Before trying to sum up I thought I should discuss calcification of the arteries. This is an area I have tended to shy away from in the past, because I am not sure exactly where to place it. Association, end-result, cause… Ignore.

Firstly, what is calcification? It is generally accepted, and I think it is true, that calcification represents the final stage of atherosclerotic plaque development, or growth – or whatever word fits most accurately. The best way of looking at calcification, within the spectrum of CVD, would be to define it as the end stage of plaque development.

Having said that, this is not always the case. Not all plaques calcify. Some do, some don’t, and there are many other factors that have a key role in calcification. Various vitamins, such as Vitamin K(K2) and vitamin D are important. Warfarin, which blocks the effects of vitamin K, increases plaque calcification. The picture is complex.

You may have heard of a condition called fibrordysplasia ossificans progressiva, where muscle turns to bone. Not nice, but it does demonstrate that, in certain circumstances, various other tissues can also calcify – to one extent or another.

The main reason for mentioning calcification is that the Calcium artery score (CAC) has become the latest way of frightening people about CVD. You do a CT scan, count of the amount of calcium you can see, and score it. The more the calcium, the worse things are.

In truth, despite my slightly sceptical tone, measuring calcification seems to be one of the most accurate ways of assessing overall plaque burden, and your true risk of dying of CVD. Like everything else in this area, the CAC score is far from perfect. However, even with many provisos in place, if you have a high CAC then you are definitely at a higher risk of dying of CVD. Equally, if you have a zero calcium score, you can pretty much relax. So it is important.

I suppose you may be wondering, at this point, why would plaques calcify? What is the body doing here? Well, you might find these quotes interesting:

“Atherosclerotic calcification is an organized, regulated process similar to bone formation that occurs only when other aspects of atherosclerosis are present.” L Wexler, et al., American Heart Association Writing Group

In short – and, by the way, I fully agree with the above quote, calcification is not an accident, or an unwanted effect. It seems to be an organised, and regulated process. But organised, and regulated, for what purpose…

‘This chapter will show that vascular calcification is a physiologic defense against active, progressive atherosclerotic disease, that it is produced by physiologic mechanisms similar to those required for normal bone formation and that it is potentially reversible. 1

You might well then ask the following. If calcification is a physiologic defense mechanism… why would you want to reverse it? You might just be making things worse. It is certainly true that plaques pass through several different phases. The most dangerous of which seems to be the ‘unstable’ plaque. This is when the central core of the plaque is a kind of liquid goo which, if it ruptures, stimulates a massive – and potentially fatal – blood clot. Plaques in this state are sometimes called ‘vulnerable.’

On the other hand, once a plaque calcifies, it appears to become more stable, and less likely to rupture… and kill you. Which means that reversal of calcification may look good on a scan, and your doctor may smile with pleasure at your reduced CAC. But… it is all good? I have seen an argument used (by the pro-statin camp) that statins accelerate calcification – but this might be a good thing, because the plaque is less likely to rupture. Is this true? [It would by a nice irony].

Perhaps, here, you can see why I struggle a bit with the whole calcification thing. Is it a natural progression of the plaque? It is a way that the body closes down further damage, and stops further plaque progression. Does calcification help to strengthen the artery wall to prevent it rupturing? Should we be trying to reverse calcification… would we simple be turning a calcified plaque back into a vulnerable plaque?

Calcification is certainly not a new thing. CT scans of mummies – from a number of different cultures – have demonstrated that many/most mummified bodies have large areas of arterial calcification. Ergo, CVD is most certainly not a disease of modern humanity. The mummies from Egypt are well over two thousand years old.

As you can probably tell I am not sure exactly what to make of calcification. However, I think you can probably make the following statements:

  • If you do a CT scan and have no demonstrable calcification – after the age of about forty to fifty – you are at very low risk of dying of CVD
  • If you have a high CAC score this means that you have been developing plaques for quite a while, and therefore (unless you change something) you are at high risk of dying of CVD. [However, bear in mind that CAC represents your history, not necessarily your future].
  • Calcification can reverse. Vitamin K2s (Menaquinones) seem to be more protective/able to reverse calcification than Vitamin K1. Menaquinones are primarily found in meat and dairy-based foods and fermented soybeans (known as natto, commonly consumed in Japan)
  • Calcification is not a cause of CVD, it is (or seems to be) the final stage of plaque development. It may be a protective mechanism to stabilise plaques.
  • There is no evidence, that I am aware of, that if you reverse calcification you improve CVD risk. But it seems likely there would be benefit.

Sorry, I am not sure if that is very helpful, but I thought I had to discuss calcification in this series.


What causes heart disease part IX

Heart disease part IX? I think my little series is getting a bit like the Superbowl, with the ever increasing roman numerals. Oh well, it just started that way, now I’m stuck with it. Never mind.

I know people have been reading this series with different purposes in mind. Still, a number of people seem to be asking ‘OK, what’s the cause?’ In which case, I have failed rather miserably in my quest. My main theme is that there is no cause. I shall repeat. There is no cause. Or, perhaps to be more accurate – there is no single cause. There cannot be.

There is a process.

To reiterated what I have been trying to say up to now, you cannot identify real causes, unless you understand what is actually going on with CVD. Indeed, I firmly believe that the search for causes has been the main reason why we are in the current situation – a multifactorial mess. In 1981 the Journal Atherosclerosis searched for all the factors that had been identified as either causing CVD, or protecting against CVD. There were nearly three hundred. Some, such as copper in the diet, were simultaneously causal and protective.

If anyone were to try to scour all medical papers to carry out such a study today, there would be thousands more factors – this I can guarantee. Cholesterol alone itself has split and multiplied into good and bad, light and fluffy, small and dense LLD-C, LDL-P, eight subtractions of HDL (good cholesterol), dyslipidaemia, Lp(a)… Each one has somebody waving a flag furiously in support of it. New and expensive tests developed each and every day.

How could anyone possibly try to make sense of such a thing? Three thousand eight hundred and fifty causal factors, four thousand two hundred and eighty-six protective factors. Go figure. Get a super-computer and run it for the entire life-span of the rest of the Universe. You may be a trillionth of the way through working out how they all add and subtract, multiply, or divide risk.

I spent twenty-five years looking for a cause, or causes, and gave up. It was a fool’s errand. It was the transmutation of lead into the gold, the search for the missing chord, the creating of a perpetual motion machine, a discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – an attempt to fit planetary motion into a Geocentric model of the Universe (Everything rotates around the Earth). In short, impossible.

The first step to understanding CVD (and this happened for me, many years ago) was to strip cholesterol/LDL cholesterol out of the model. For so many people, then as now, Cholesterol was/is the Earth at the centre of the Geocentric model. It still represents the key jigsaw piece placed triumphantly in the middle of the puzzle. Hammered in, and decreed immovable by the likes of Ancel Keys, before anyone really knew what the picture looks like.

I have read paper after paper where people seem to be going in the right direction about heart disease, then they find they have to shoehorn cholesterol into the centre of their research. At which point everything distorts into a mess of twisted logic. A truth may be jumping up and down in front of them shouting ‘Me, me, me. Here. Look.’ But the truth is invisible. There are no so blind as those who will not see.

There is a process

The conclusion that I came to, eventually, is that we have to define the underlying process. As we should do with all diseases I suppose. However, the ‘disease’ model that medicine has become fixated with, as a way of thinking, was in major part started by a famous microbiologist Robert Koch in the late nineteenth century. His thinking was mainly directed microorganisms e.g. bacteria, viruses and suchlike. He decreed that for any microorganisms to be identified as a true cause of a disease, the following postulates must be fulfilled.

  • The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy organisms.
  • The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.
  • The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
  • The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.

Now, these are pretty tough criteria. If not just from an ethical perspective. You try putting a cultured microorganism into a healthily organism nowadays and see how far you get. ‘We are not sure that Ebola virus causes Ebola in humans. Let me isolate if from a patient and introduce into a healthy human.’ Good luck with that.

However, the main point I want to make here is the ‘single causal agent’ concept of medicine has become the meme. You start by looking for the cause of a disease. Once you believe you have it, all research, and all thinking starts to crystallize around that cause. It becomes the centre of all thinking, and dominates the landscape.

I see this in CVD researchers all the time. There are those who are still convinced that cholesterol causes heart disease. All facts are twisted and bent around to fit this central fact. Contradictions are ‘immunised’ against in various ways.

Me:                           ‘People with low cholesterol levels can still have plaques and an MI. So a raised cholesterol level is neither necessary, nor sufficient, to cause CVD.’ {See under Koch’s postulates}.

A.N. Expert:         ‘Actually the normal level of cholesterol in modern humans is far higher than the ‘healthy level.’ So, everyone actually has does have a high cholesterol level. Look at hunter gatherer’s, neonates and other animal species. Where cholesterol levels are much lower.’

The argument here is almost perfect. Everyone has a high cholesterol, so you cannot rule out a high cholesterol level as a cause of CVD- in anyone. [Total nonsense of course].

Me:                           ‘In the Framingham study, those whose cholesterol levels fell, in the first fourteen years of the study, had a greatly increased risk of CVD over the next eighteen years.’

A.N. Expert:         ‘The is reverse causality. A falling cholesterol is caused by an underlying disease, and it is the underlying disease causing the problem, not the low cholesterol.’

Me;                           ‘The French have higher cholesterol levels than the Russians and one tenth the rate of CVD

A.N. Expert:         ‘The French are protected by drinking red wine and eating lightly cooked vegetables and eating garlic.’

Me:                           ‘Asian Indians do not have high cholesterol levels, yet their rate of CVD is far higher than the surrounding population

A.N. Expert:         ‘The Asians are genetically susceptible to CVD.’

‘Ad-Hoc hypotheses – that is, at the time untestable auxiliary hypotheses – can save almost any theory from any particular refutation. But this does not mean that we can go on with an ad hoc hypothesis as long as we like. It may become testable; and a negative test may force us either to give it up or to introduce a new secondary ad hoc hypothesis, and on and on, ad infinitum.’ Karl Popper.

One of my favourite ad-hoc hypothesis, which covers the entire diet-heart/cholesterol hypothesis, rather than just the cholesterol hypothesis, was the use of teleoanlysis. Here, the authors looked at all the studies on using a low fat died and found they had no effect on CVD. However, they knew (and claimed as fact) that eating saturated fat raised cholesterol levels, and they knew (and claimed as fact) that raised cholesterol causes CVD. Ergo, eating saturated fat must cause CVD, so the trials must be wrong.

At which point, rather than relying on the published evidence, they decided that you simply make up studies in your head, and use them to prove that saturated fat does, actually, cause CVD. If you think I am making this up, here is the quote from the study, published in the BMJ

‘….teleoanalysis combines different categories of study to quantify the relation between a causative factor and the risk of disease. This is helpful in determining medical practice and public health policy. Put simply, meta-analysis is the analysis of many studies that have already been done; teleoanalysis provides the answer to questions that would be obtained from studies that have not been done and often, for ethical and financial reasons, could never be done.’

Yes, this was published in the BMJ, no less. I always enjoy this paper. It is so ludicrous that it goes well beyond despair and into surrealism. ‘Ceci n’est pas une Pipe.’ Ignore the evidence and, instead, rely on what you know to be true. This, of course, is the way high quality science should be done… not.

More recently we have equally mad studies on mendelian randomisation. Which may not immediately look like teleoanalysis, but at heart it is are exactly the same thing.

It has been found that older people with high cholesterol levels live longer than those with low cholesterol levels, and get less CVD. This does not fit well into a world where billions can be made lowering cholesterol levels – particularly in the elderly. The first attempt to refute this finding was to say that other diseases lead to low cholesterol levels (as mentioned earlier), and it is the other diseases causing the problem, not the low cholesterol. It was Iribarren who came up with this one.

This, so called ‘reverse causality hypothesis’, has been proven to be wrong in several major studies. So, a new attempt was made using ‘mendelian randomisation’ [Yes, genetics, after Gregor Mendel who proved the concept of genetic inheritance]. By using mendelian randomisation, you can identify people who would have had high cholesterol during most of their lifespan (they have genes associated with high cholesterol levels). So, their cholesterol may be low when you measured it, but it would have been high for most of their lifetime.

Ergo, people with low cholesterol levels, and higher mortality rates, actually had higher cholesterol levels when they were younger, and the lifetime effect of these high cholesterol levels will have caused them to die of CVD. Not, I repeat not, the low cholesterol levels they now have. Yes, this stuff gets published too, and rolled out to confuse the hell out of everyone. [Luckily, I have contact with people within the pharma industry who set up and run genetic studies. They tell me this stuff is simply smoke and mirrors].

I shall paraphrase mendelian randomisation studies. ‘Your cholesterol level is not your cholesterol level…. So there. It is whatever we decide it is.’

Believe me, attempts to refute contradictions to the cholesterol hypothesis get more complex than this. As you can see, in the world of CVD you can play the game of ad-hoc hypothesis, ad-infinitum. In the end there are so many ad-hoc hypothesis created that A.N. Expert can slip from one the other and back again without ever having to accept that any single fact represents a contradiction to the hypothesis. The final trick, when you are getting close to nailing them they just say ‘Oh well, CVD is multifactorial.’ This is not an answer. It is just a polite way of saying ‘shut up and do as I say.’

I ended up with a further realisation. There is no point attacking the cholesterol hypothesis. Those who believe in it have created a majestic Byzantine world of mind-numbing complexity where you can wonder the corridors of ad-hoc hypotheses forever, and never escape.

So, I made a decision, which I have just gone back on. Do not bother attacking the diet-heart/cholesterol (whatever you want to call it) hypothesis. You just get dragged onto a playing field that is not your own, chasing round and round in circles, trying to refute the latest made up ad-hoc hypothesis. It is like discussing the existence, or non-existence, of God with a Professor in theology. They can call on two thousand years of well-rehearsed arguments to confuse you with. You don’t stand a chance.

Instead I have spent, what I hope to be more productive, years and years, working out a hypothesis that actually fits the facts. There is no need for ad-hoc hypothesis, no need for teleoanalysis, or mendalian randomisation. No need for planets doing little circles in the sky, to support the Geocentric model of the Universe.

I could only do this by moving away from looking at causes, and trying to establish the underlying processes at work in CVD. I am not the first to attempt this. Rokitansky was first, Duguid had a good go, Ross also attempted to demonstrate the ‘response to injury hypothesis.’ Up to now, those who believe that CVD is, essentially, a disease of dysfunctional blood clotting have simply bounced off the well-guarded walls of the cholesterol citadel.

In the end, though, someone is going to break through. It is just a matter of time. You can stomp on the truth for many years. You can concrete it over. But the truth has a major advantage over sophistry. It is immortal. No matter how deep you try to bury it, It lies there, waiting to be discovered, pushing little green shoots up into the sunlight waiting to be discovered.

What causes heart disease part VIII

The healing process

Most people, when they think about atherosclerotic plaques, think of them as starting very small – as fatty streaks and suchlike. Then they inevitably get bigger and bigger over many years. However, this is not correct:

‘Atherosclerosis was originally considered to be an ongoing process that was inevitably associated with age. However, plaques are highly dynamic, and are able to progress, stabilize or regress depending on their surrounding milieu. A great deal of research attention has been focused on understanding the involvement of high-density lipoprotein in atherosclerotic plaque regression. However, atherosclerotic plaque regression encompasses a variety of processes that can be grouped into three main areas: removal of lipids and necrotic material; restoration of endothelial function and repair of denuded areas; and cessation of vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation and phenotype reversal.’ 1

In short, progression is not inevitable. Plaques can shrink down in size, the smooth muscle proliferation (often considered and irreversible components of plaques) reversed, and endothelial function restored. In truth, you will most likely not end up with a perfectly healed plaque with no signs it was ever there. You will be left with a bit of a ‘scar’ or some sort. However, the important point is that we are not looking at a one-way street. The body can heal plaques. (Probably not once calcified, but that is another issue).

This leads me onto the third part of the process of CVD. As I have been discussing in this series, the process of CVD has four basic components:

  • Endothelial damage
  • Clot formation/dysfunctional clot formation
  • Clot repair/dysfunctional clot repair
  • The final, fatal, blood clot

Up to now I have mainly talked about endothelial damage, and clot formation, which are plaque ‘growth’ factors. However, repair is also very important. Anything that can interfere with the repair process is going to make plaques grow, rather than regress.

The key players in repair are: monocytes, macrophages and Endothelial Progenitor Cells (EPCs). As mentioned several times before, once the endothelium is damaged, and a clot formed, EPCs are attracted to the area to form a new layer of endothelium. So, clearly EPCS are critical players. Just to quote one paper:

‘BACKGROUND: Cardiovascular risk factors contribute to atherogenesis by inducing endothelial-cell injury and dysfunction. We hypothesized that endothelial progenitor cells derived from bone marrow have a role in ongoing endothelial repair and that impaired mobilization or depletion of these cells contributes to endothelial dysfunction and cardiovascular disease progression.

CONCLUSIONS: In healthy men, levels of endothelial progenitor cells may be a surrogate biologic marker for vascular function and cumulative cardiovascular risk. These findings suggest that endothelial injury in the absence of sufficient circulating progenitor cells may affect the progression of cardiovascular disease.’2 Which means that with fewer EPCS, plaques grow faster.

The critical part that EPCs have to play is also seen in patients who have angioplasty, or stents. Immediately following the procedure, the bone marrow starts making more EPCs.

‘In conclusion, endothelial injury from angioplasty can lead to time-dependent mobilization or homing of EPCs; mature EPC subpopulations are actively mobilized, and may contribute more to endothelial reparation; and the mobilization amplitude of the main EPC subpopulations is significantly influenced by the degree of endothelial injury and certain clinical factors.’3

It follows that, if you have fewer EPCs the risk of CVD will be much higher. This is clearly seen in Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (mentioned a few times before). The paper quoted from below looked at SLE, and the number of EPCs, and also haematopoietic stem Cells (HSCs) – which are the precursor to EPCs – found in the bone marrow:

‘SLE patients have lower levels of circulating HSC and EPC, even during clinical remission. Our data suggest that increased HSC apoptosis (cell death) is the underlying cause for this depletion. These observations indicate that progenitor cell mediated endogenous vascular repair is impaired in SLE, which may contribute to the accelerated development of atherosclerosis.’4

Other conditions, or factors, that reduce EPC numbers include:

  • Type II diabetes
  • Avastin
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Smoking

To name but four.

Of course there tends to be a tight association between factors that damage the endothelial cells, and factors that reduce EPC number. This appears to be primarily modulated by nitric oxide levels. Anything that increases NO levels in endothelial cells and also helps to protect them from damage appears to increase EPC production in the bone marrow.

A non-exhaustive list of things can do this this are:

  • Exercise
  • L-arginine/L-citrulline
  • ACE-inhibitors (used for BP reduction)
  • Statins

Yes, the dreaded statins… Boooo! In truth, for many years I have accepted (albeit with great reluctance), that statins do have some benefits in CVD. Not enough, in my opinion, to overcome the damage that they can do. However, the benefit is there, it is real.

I knew it could be nothing to do with the impact of statins on lowering LDL, as LDL has nothing to do with CVD (well, almost nothing). So there had to be another effect. And that effect is, in my opinion, almost entirely to do with the ability of statins to increase nitric oxide (NO) production:

‘Endothelial nitric oxide (eNO) bioavailability is severely reduced after myocardial infarction (MI) and in heart failure. Statins enhance eNO availability by both increasing eNO production and reducing NO inactivation. We therefore studied the effect of statin treatment on eNO availability after MI and tested its role for endothelial progenitor cell mobilization, myocardial neovascularization, left ventricular (LV) dysfunction, remodeling, and survival after MI….. These findings suggest that increased eNO availability is required for statin-induced improvement of endothelial progenitor cell mobilization, myocardial neovascularization, LV dysfunction, interstitial fibrosis, and survival after MI. eNO bioavailability after MI likely represents an important therapeutic target in heart failure after MI and mediates beneficial effects of statin treatment after MI.5

Yes, when you decide to look through a different prism, you can find that things you thought were one thing, turn out to be another thing entirely. Professor Michael Oliver – a trenchant critic of the cholesterol hypothesis before statins came along – changed his mind, once he saw that statins lowered LDL and lowered CVD risk. Case proven – he said.

No, case not proven. Instead, if you look at EPCs and nitric oxide (NO) and take the view of CVD that it is all due to endothelial dysfunction, blood clotting and impaired repair, you can see exactly where statins may fit into the picture.

Next: The final event.







What causes heart disease part VII

For over thirty years I have been studying heart disease, or Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). I don’t think that I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder…but maybe I have. I must admit that, at times there seemed to be no answers, at least no answers that did not have at least one Mount Everest sized contradiction.

At one point I simply decided that CVD was just a manifestation of ageing. It happened to everyone, at different rates. There was no cause – no causes. CVD was simply something humanity suffered from, get over it.

However, deep down, I knew that this could not actually be true. There were populations with almost zero rates of CVD, and others where the rates were extremely high. Just to give one example. Russia vs. Japan. In 2006 Russian men under the age of 65 suffered eighteen times the rate of CHD of men in Japan. I don’t think this ratio has changed this much.

I knew that Japanese men did not have any genetic protection. When they emigrated to other countries, their rate of CHD rose rapidly to match that of the surrounding population. Not always, but almost always. So it was obvious that something, or somethings, was causing massive differences in the rate. It wasn’t just fate, or genetics, it wasn’t just the ‘way it is.’ [By the way, the average cholesterol level in Russian men in 2006 was 5.1mmol/l, in Japanese men it was startlingly different at….. 5.1mmol/l]

Long, long ago I worked out that cholesterol, or LDL cholesterol has nothing much to do with CVD. Well, if two populations have exactly the same cholesterol levels and an eighteen-fold difference in the rate of CVD, cholesterol could only be causing 1/18th of the overall risk – absolute max. This figure assumes that the entire of the rate of CVD in Japan was caused by cholesterol, with no other factor playing any part. I don’t think I need bother telling what I think of that as a concept.

For a number of years, I pursued the alternative hypothesis that CVD was primarily caused by stress. There was a great deal of evidence to support this, and of course there still is. I still believe that stress (a concept which does need a bit of explanation) is the single most important cause of CVD. However, there were still many cases of death from heart disease and strokes where it was clear that stress had nothing (or nothing that I could see), to do with it.

For example, as mentioned before in this series of blogs. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), where the increased (relative risk) rate of CVD in young women is up to 5,000% higher than the surrounding population. Now that is a proper increase in risk. In fact, it is the sort of increase that tells you that you are looking at a ‘true’ cause of CVD. Not some very wobbly and weak association.

I was also interested in Kawasaki’s disease. This is a vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) that affects young children, who can then suffer heart attacks aged four, or five. Not exactly the same mechanism that causes heart attacks in adults, but very nearly. Again, this is highly significant. A condition that can kill children aged four from CVD is not just some anomaly that can be ignored. I knew I was looking at another true cause.

Later, my attention turned to Avastin. A cancer drug that was almost pulled from the market as it rapidly accelerated atherosclerotic plaque development, and death from CVD. No other risk factors needed to be present.

But how to link SLE, Kawasaki’s, and Avastin, through stress and other important risk factors such as smoking, or diabetes? When I discussed such things with ‘experts’ in cardiology, they would just end up saying that CVD was multifactorial. However, this has always seemed the ultimate cop out. ‘Yes of course, it is multifactorial.’ I would reply. ‘But how do this multiple factors actually fit together. Do they all create different diseases, or the same disease… through completely different process?’

In the end, if you are going to understand CVD you must be able to link all true causes of CVD into a single coherent process that fits all of the facts. If you cannot do this, you are really just stumbling about in the dark. Simply muttering ‘multifactorial’ whenever anyone asks you a question you cannot answer adds nothing to understanding.

Over the years, I found myself drawn back to the Scottish Heart Health study, for one very important reason. Which was that, in this study, fibrinogen emerged as the single most important risk factor for CVD. A fact that seemed to have popped out of nowhere. Never to be mentioned again. As a quick aside, in this same study it was found that the cholesterol was not a risk factor for heart disease. Another fact never to be mentioned again.

Was the Scottish ‘fibrinogen factor’ just an anomaly. A single observation, never to be replicated? I needed to find out. So I shifted my attention away from stress, to a focus on blood clotting factors. When I did so, I kept finding the same thing over and over again. Factors that increase blood clotting were always associated with a higher risk of CVD. Factors that reduced blood clotting always reduced the risk of CVD.

Just to give one specific example. High Density Lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol), so-called good cholesterol. Conventional thinking is that HDL sucks cholesterol out of atherosclerotic plaques and transports this back to the liver via the ‘reverse cholesterol transport’ system. A concept which has always seemed to me to look like a most desperate clutching at straws.


‘The antithrombotic properties of native HDL are also related to the suppression of the coagulation cascade and stimulation of clot fibrinolysis. Furthermore, HDL stimulates the endothelial production of nitric oxide and prostacyclin, which are potent inhibitors of platelet activation. Thus, HDL’s antithrombotic actions are multiple and therefore, raising HDL may be an important therapeutic strategy to reduce the risk of arterial and venous thrombosis.’1

Yes, HDL is actually a potent anticoagulant. In addition, it protects the endothelium and increases NO synthesis in endothelial cells. So, we don’t need a reverse cholesterol transport conjecture. HDL can be looked in a completely different way. I found it fascinating that the moment you decide to look at things from another direction a very different picture emerges.

Once I had my ‘clotting’ goggles on I began to ask myself: Is CVD simply the end result of dysfunctional (and I use the word dysfunctional in the broadest sense here) blood clotting?

Of course, for this to be true, atherosclerotic plaques have to be, at their core, blood clots. Well, are they? In 1856 Karl Von Rokitansky examined atherosclerotic plaques and declared them to be blood clots – in various stages of repair – or degeneration (depending on your point of view). They contained everything you find in blood clots, platelets, red blood cells, lipoproteins, fibrin and all the rest.

Karl Von Rokitansky’s problem? He could not explain how a blood clot could form within the arterial wall itself, underneath the endothelial cells. The reason why he could not explain this is that he did not know that Endothelial Progenitor Cells (EPCs), cover over clots that form in blood vessels. This, effectively, draws them into the artery wall.

Because he had never heard of EPCs, and could not counter the central criticism of his hypothesis, Rokitansky’s ideas never took off, and the cholesterol hypothesis filled the void. The rest, as they say, is history.

A few weeks ago I was presenting on CVD and I was asked, whilst waiting in the coffee line, ‘Come on then, what does cause CVD?’ The man who asked was a doctor, a pathologist, just retired, who had spent his life doing autopsies, and examining many, many, people who had died of heart attacks. I said to him. ‘Plaques are clots, and clots are plaques. It is all due to blood clotting.

He was not in the slightest surprised. He just nodded in affirmation. ‘I thought so.’ He said. ‘I have always thought that plaques were blood clots.’ Well, what else could they be? There is little else that they could be.

For example, if you start looking at platelets and plaques, a whole new world of information opens up. Platelets are, if you remember, small blood cells that are the key ingredient of all blood clots (thrombi). They are attracted to the site of arterial damage, they clump together and then stimulate the ‘clotting cascade’ which creates clots that are tightly bound together by fibrin.

If clots are plaques, and plaques are clots, you would expect to find that platelets are intimately involved in the entire process of plaque formation. Here, I quote a long section from a book called ‘Platelets in Thrombotic and Non-Thrombotic Disorders.’ For some, this may be a big technical, but I suggest a read, and re-read.

In this section it is pointed out that clots/thrombi form at areas of endothelial damage/stress. In addition, platelet rich thrombi are incorporated into the vessel wall at sites of injury…. Yes, the whole process is outlined here. Including the fact that platelets contain a substance that causes smooth muscles to grow and proliferate (a key finding in all plaques).

Where is cholesterol in all this…nowhere. Please read and inwardly digest:

‘von Rokitanksy and Virchow were early investigators who reported that in some instances, the development of atherosclerosis involved early vessel wall injury, thrombosis, and the incorporation of thrombi into the vessel wall. In 1887, Welch gave a clear description of arterial thrombi based on the experiments of a number of investigators, showing that they began as platelet-rich thrombi and are then transformed into masses rich in fibrin. Much later, these observations were reinforced by Duguid, Morgan, More and Haust and French.

In the 1960s, we observed that platelets were deposited on, and interacted with, the walls of arteries in regions of disturbed blood flow. These are the sites where atherosclerotic lesions develop and increased vessel permeability is demonstrable.

In 1973, Moore induced ‘thromobathererosclerosis’ in rabbits by continuous damage of the endothelium of the aorta with an indwelling catheter, and in 1976, he and his group showed that prior administration of anti-platelet serum to induce thrombocytopenia (very few platelets in the blood) prevented the development of these lesions. The finding by Ross and his colleagues in 1974 that stimulated platelets release a mitogen for smooth muscle cells (platelet derived growth factor PDGF) arose from a chance observation.

They noticed that serum prepared from platelet-free plasma did not support the proliferation of smooth muscle cells in culture, but when they prepared serum by blotting platelet rich plasma, the serum supported cell growth as effectively as serum prepared from whole blood. These results gave even more credence to the theory that platelets are involved in the development of atherosclerotic plaques because they promote the proliferation of smooth muscle cells.

The progression of atherosclerotic plaques also involved platelets since platelet rich thrombi have been shown to be incorporated into the vessel wall at sites of injury. Platelet rich thrombi that form on ruptured atherosclerotic plaque may occlude the lumen of the vessel, or may embolize (break off and travel down the artery).

When the thomboemboli impact in smaller downstream vessels, organ damage occurs. These concepts about platelets and atherosclerosis have stood the test of time. The picture developed by Ross of the development of an atherosclerotic plaque is not well known, and the signalling pathways, PGDF activated are being explored. The importance of platelet interaction with the components of ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the thromboembolic complications of atherosclerosis is now generally accepted.2

When I read stuff like this I think. Come on guys, you know that plaques are clots and clots are plaques. It is staring you in the face. It has been staring humanity in the face for over a hundred and sixty years. Ever since Rokitansky and Virchow started to look closely.

Next: Impaired plaque repair


2: ‘Platelets in Thrombotic and Non-Thrombotic Disorders.’ Edited by Paolo Gresele. Page 5.