Nutritional supplements to reduce cardiovascular risk

Here’s an excerpt from the Fall 2008 issue of the New York Buyers’ Club SUPPLEMENT . (You can read the full issue online at, where you’ll also find an archive of past numbers.)

It’s all about managing risk.

People try to control risk all the time, whether it’s kids learning to cross the street on green, people buckling their seat belts when getting into the car, or a smoker looking at the statistics relating tobacco use to cancer and heart disease and deciding that now is the time to quit.

Earlier this year, a group of experts on HIV and heart disease recommended that people with HIV pay special attention to monitoring and controlling cardiovascular risk factors like high cholesterol and diabetes. Overall, according to currently available evidence, the risk of heart attack is approximately 70% to 80% higher for HIV-positive people than for HIV-negative people. This increased level of risk is likely due in part to HIV itself, and in part to HIV medications. Some typical cardiovascular warning signs for people with HIV include reduced levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”) and high triglycerides, or a tendency toward pre-diabetes. The panel of experts, which was convened by the American Heart Association and the American Academy of HIV Medicine, found indications that even HIV+ children on meds have early development of these kinds of cardiovascular risk factors.

You may also have heard recent news stories about the HIV medication abacavir and elevated risk of heart attack. A commonly used HIV med in the family of drugs called nucleoside analogs (“nukes”), abacavir is part of the combination drugs Ziagen and Trizivir. Two studies based on large databases have detected an association between abacavir and increased risk of heart attack. Although there isn’t an exact understanding of how abacavir (or another nuke, ddI) could cause higher risk of heart attack, the research does suggest that people with other cardiovascular risk factors, such as smoking or high cholesterol, are at the greatest risk.

Which brings us back to our original point: it’s all about managing risk—knowing the risk factors, then lowering them as much as you can. And that’s where nutritional supplements can be helpful.
At the top of the list of supplements to support cardiovascular health is fish oil, with its key component being the omega-3 fatty acids. Since 2005, the American Heart Association, following a hefty accumulation of scientific evidence, has recommended daily intake of fish oil for people with cardiovascular disease. And there has been research specifically looking at fish oil for people with HIV who have elevated cardiovascular risk. For example, a 2007 study of HIV+ people who had high triglyceride levels found that fish oil supplementation reduced these levels by 25% or more. Also of note: fish oil supplementation for people with HIV is being studied in federally funded research that examines how this supplement might counter the effects of lipodystrophy, a syndrome that includes blood lipid abnormalities.

People with HIV are often prescribed statin drugs like Lipitor to lower cholesterol and reduce cardiovascular risk, and while these drugs can be effective, they may also produce side effects, including joint and muscle pain and changes in mood and thinking ability. Many integrative health specialists endorse the idea of taking the supplement CoQ10 along with statins, since depletion of this nutrient by statins may be linked to some of the drug’s major side effects. Moreover, research suggests that, due to its antioxidant and blood-thinning properties, CoQ10 when combined with a statin decreases heart disease risk more than just the statin alone. Similarly, there is important research indicating that statins together with niacin can be more effective at reducing cardiovascular risk over the long term than just the statins. Though niacin dosage may have to be slowly increased in order to avoid “flushing” (redness, itchiness), strong scientific evidence for this supplement’s effectiveness and safety dates back to the 1970s, and indicates that it may be especially helpful in bringing up levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”), which is now regarded as a very significant marker for assessing cardiovascular risk.

A few months ago we were impressed by a talk given by Dr Jon Kaiser, an HIV physician with extensive experience in integrating nutrition and nutritional supplementation into his health care practice. While Dr. Kaiser ranged over several topics, including his well-known interest in the benefits of general micronutrient support for people with HIV, he also had much to say about controlling cholesterol levels with nutritional supplements. His approach consists of low-dose niacin (low dose to minimize flushing), fish oil, plant sterols and pantethine. As he’s started to follow case histories over the past few years, he’s become quite encouraged by the results, and believes that many people with HIV could achieve good results (comparable to those offered by statins, but without the side effects) by adopting this kind of combination therapy.

In the past year, NYBC has begun stocking a Douglas Labs product called CardioEdge, which, like Dr Kaiser’s approach, involves a combination of supplements (including plant sterols) to manage cholesterol. We’ve also recently added a Jarrow product, Pressure Optimizer, which combines several supplements (including theanine from green tea) that are useful in maintaining normal blood pressure. (High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and it’s one of the first issues anyone should address in bringing down heart attack risk.)

We find that physicians who are knowledgeable about nutrition and nutritional supplements have a lot of useful advice to offer when it comes to controlling cardiovascular risk. For example, Dr Hyla Cass, author of the book Supplement Your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition (recently reviewed on the NYBC blog), calls attention to the fact that metformin, the most frequently prescribed diabetes drug in the US, depletes the B vitamins and thus can cause a spike in the body’s levels of homocysteine, a substance linked in recent research to high cardiovascular risk. To counter this danger, she emphasizes the need to supplement with B vitamins when taking metformin.

In line with much current scientific thinking, Dr Cass also believes that cholesterol level by itself is not an adequate measure for assessing cardiovascular risk. In addition, it’s necessary to look at underlying inflammatory processes in order to comprehend the threats to heart and circulatory system health. That’s why Dr. Cass recommends that people who want to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease should develop a diet plan centering on anti-inflammatory nutrients. She suggests a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods—colorful fruits and vegetables, curry, rosemary, ginger, green tea, dark chocolate, and low-toxin fish like salmon or sardines. (Actually could make for quite a tasty menu, don’t you think?)

To conclude: yes, it’s sobering when researchers warn about increased cardiovascular risk for people with HIV. But there’s also general agreement that cardiovascular risk is very susceptible to management by choices in diet and nutrition. (Exercise and quitting smoking are also important!) So, while you can’t control everything in life, remember that there are many choices you can make to significantly reduce your cardiovascular risk.

Nutritional supplements discussed in this article: fish oil, CoQ10, niacin, plant sterols, pantethine, B vitamins; and the proprietary formulas CardioEdge and Pressure Optimizer.

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