My husband Pete and I began a vegan diet in 2011 following Pete’s heart attack. (Read “A Little Heart Attack Story” here.) People now often ask Pete, “Do you feel better now that you’re vegan?”
Pete’s answer is “No.”
I don’t know why his answer bothers me, but it does. Of course I know he’s telling the truth. I know what he means is, he didn’t feel unwell before his heart attack and diet change, and he doesn’t feel any differently now. He felt well before, and he feels well now. He prefers simple answers to simple questions. I, on the other hand, believe an explanation is in order.
So how can this be? After all, many people recovering from heart disease and switching to a whole-foods plant-based diet report feeling more energetic. They lose weight; they sleep better and things like that.
First, it’s important to understand heart disease expresses itself differently in different people. Some heart disease includes arterial blockage, and some does not (for example, sudden cardiac arrest). I’ll limit my discussion to two ways arterial blockage can express itself in a heart patient.
One way involves a slow build-up of plaque on the walls of the coronary arteries, which also become less flexible with disease. Over time, less and less blood flow is allowed through the arteries to the heart, sometimes causing a patient to feel unwell, including unusual fatigue, chest discomfort or shortness of breath with exertion, among other symptoms. If a patient listens to her body, she visits the doctor, who might discover a level of arterial blockage and prescribe medication, bypass surgery or stent placement if disease is so advanced. This heart condition takes years to develop.
This kind of disease progression often involves older plaques, which also tend to be larger and more stable. They therefore do not always cause a sudden or immediate problem for a patient until too much accumulates.
That’s just one scenario.
Newest research shows most “heart attacks” happen when younger, smaller and unstable plaques rupture their outer lining (or cap) and bleed into the coronary artery.
Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., M.D. explains:
As the plaque is formed, a fibrous cap develops at its roof, which is covered by a single layer of endothelium about as thick as a cobweb. For a while, thus protected, plaques lie quietly in place, doing little perceptible harm to the artery’s owner. But an insidious process is nonetheless under way. [White blood cells, oxidized with LDL cholesterol, race to the rescue, and begin to] manufacture chemical substances that erode the cap of the plaque. The cap weakens…and eventually, the shearing force of blood flowing over the weakened cap may cause it to rupture. Nature wants to heal the rupture, and so platelets are activated. They try mightily to stop the invading garbage by clotting the rupture. The clot is self-propagating, and within minutes, the entire artery may become blocked. This is the definition of myocardial infarction, or heart attack. ~From Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Nutrition-Based Cure
This might help explain why a person may feel fine one minute, but experience a sudden heart attack the next minute.
A person like Pete can be relatively young with a heart attack, which he was at age 49. He can be a “normal” weight, which he was, although he has since lost 15 or 20 pounds. He can have a “normal” cholesterol reading, which he did. And he can have “normal” blood pressure readings, which he did, although at the checkup prior to his heart attack, his doctor did record a higher blood pressure reading compared to previous readings. It was nothing in a range that required treatment.
I’m putting “normal” in quotation marks, because some researchers believe our common standards for these various measures are not currently strict enough. By common standards, Pete was “normal.” Yet he did have a heart attack.
Heavier people with higher cholesterol and blood pressure readings may well feel MUCH better after treatment and a switch to a plant-based diet. Some people with more subtle indicators but who nevertheless have heart disease, may not report feeling much differently. However, a check of markers, including weight, cholesterol and blood pressure (and others) after treatment and diet change show improvement. It did for Pete.
And I, for one, feel much better.