Heart Health

Heart health is on everyone’s mind these days, and we’re all concerned about getting the right tips for heart health that will make it simple to make the right decisions about diet and lifestyle. Natural heart health may mean adding the right cholesterol-lowering herbs and supplements into your health regimen, or cutting back on foods that can put you at risk for heart disease. Our experts—along with our annual Healthy Heart Events—can make your plan for natural heart health simple. Turn to Project Wellness for continual updates on heart health tips that can make our hearts healthier for the long term.

  • Magnesium: A Cornerstone of Health

    Swiss chard RainbowMagnesium is essential for so many things: the beating of our heart, a positive mood, energy production, releasing tension…in other words, we can all benefit from magnesium!

    Identified in more than 300 processes inside the body, magnesium is a powerful building block that contributes to overall health and wellness in a unique way. A key player in physical and mental relaxation, neuromuscular transmission and energy, magnesium serves double duty both rebuilding the body, and giving it a sense of wellbeing.

    Magnesium also functions closely with potassium, calcium and phosphorus. It hums through the body, maintaining an electrical charge between cells and inside muscles and nerves. Magnesium has a very special relationship with the heart, and studies show that both acute and chronic magnesium deficiencies are associated with an increased risk of heart attack.

    Another main role of magnesium is to perpetuate a game of checks and balances with calcium inside the body. It is fundamental for both the absorption and excretion of calcium, and assists in the safe elimination of calcium through the urinary tract, preventing kidney stones and soft-tissue calcium deposits.

    Magnesium deficiency is very common in the elderly, and magnesium supplementation is recommended for those with intestinal or renal distress. Approximately 30-40 percent of dietary magnesium is absorbed, depending on the form consumed, and on individual intestinal transit time. For this reason, large doses of magnesium can be used for occasional constipation without being depleted in the body.

    Pregnant women can also benefit from therapeutic magnesium supplementation to help prevent pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, as well as during the birthing process. Magnesium can also help prevent or lessen the effects of PMS through its ability to regulate mood, appetite changes, energy, cramping and overall response to stress.

    Magnesium is even vital for protein synthesis and healthy blood sugar levels, making it a key nutrient for building muscle and helping maintain a healthy body weight.

    Truly, magnesium has something for everyone. An optimal dose is about 350-450 mg per day, and I recommend getting it in small doses—especially through magnesium-rich foods like kelp, seaweed, almonds, cashews, molasses, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, coconut water, aloe vera, barley grass and legumes. Speak with your health care practitioner before beginning any supplement regimen, and to have your magnesium levels tested. 

  • 4 Good Reasons to Take Omega-3s

    Mom and DaughterOmega-3s like DHA and EPA are called essential fatty acids for a reason—they’re essential to our health. But just why are omega-3s so essential? We spoke with Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, ND, member of Pharmaca’s Integrative Health Advisory Board, about why she recommends essential fatty acids.

    Fighting inflammation
    “Fish oil can help normalize the inflammatory process in the body,” says Dr. Low Dog. That’s vital, she says, because it seems that inflammation is what’s driving many of the chronic ailments we see today. We need a certain level of inflammation to heal ourselves, she says, but it’s the chronic levels that are causing a lot of health problems—like allergies, heart disease, arthritis, cancer and more.

    Reducing insulin resistance
    “Omega-3s have been shown to have very beneficial effects on insulin resistance in obese people without diabetes,” says Dr. Low Dog. People in this pre-diabetic stage see real results from fish oil, which helps increase insulin sensitivity, she says, and therefore reduces the risk of developing full-blown type 2 diabetes. And since the CDC believes the rate of diabetes in America will continue to increase, taking omega-3s preventively can be vital for a large portion of our population.

    Supporting baby’s neurodevelopment
    “Most of our brain and eyes are made from DHA,” says Dr. Low Dog. That’s why it’s a vitally important nutrient for baby’s development, specifically during pregnancy and breastfeeding. “You can’t give what you don’t have, so the baby may not be getting enough if there’s not enough DHA in Mom’s diet or they’re not getting a formula with added DHA.” That’s why she recommends that all pregnant or breastfeeding women eat fish or supplement with a vegetarian source of DHA.

    Boosting cardiovascular health
    There’s so much evidence showing EPA’s ability to lower triglycerides that it’s approved by the FDA as an effective therapy, either by prescription or over-the-counter fish oil supplements.  “Studies have shown that about 4,000 mg per day can reduce triglycerides by about 30 percent,” says Dr. Low Dog. She adds that because omega-3s help fight inflammation and lower insulin resistance, they can also help reduce heart disease risk. “With fish oil, you’re getting a multitude of benefits for the cardiovascular system.”

    A few more reasons…
    There is strong evidence for fish oil’s effects on rheumatoid arthritis. “What they’ve found is that when you give 5,000 mg of fish oil to people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, it actually can reduce the need for so much medication. People are also more likely to go into remission,” says Dr. Low Dog.

    “We think inflammation may be a direct link to depression,” says Dr. Low Dog, so fish oil’s ability to lower inflammation may also have some beneficial effects on depression itself. Medications used to treat depression can also drive inflammation, and it is well known people suffering from depression usually have a higher risk of heart disease. That’s why Dr. Low Dog almost always puts patients with depression or bipolar disorder on at least 1,000 mg of EPA per day.

    There are new studies that showing overweight people, especially those with high abdominal obesity, saw greater weight loss on 1,000 mg of fish oil per day than others taking a placebo. “Weight around the midsection can increase insulin resistance, increase triglyceride levels, increase inflammation…and fish oil can help combat all of that,” says Dr. Low Dog. As if there wasn’t enough to love about fish oil!

    Speak with your doctor or a Pharmaca practitioner about finding the right fish oil and dosage for your health concerns.

  • Women and Heart Health: Know the Warning Signs

    AgingYou probably know that heart disease is the number one killer of women. But did you know that a woman’s signs of heart attack don’t necessarily look the same as a man’s? In fact, the discrepancies in symptoms can result in women being turned away from hospitals when doctors are unable to diagnose it as a heart attack. But the longer an artery is blocking blood flow to the heart, the more damage can occur to the heart muscle. That’s why it’s a good idea to understand women’s unique heart attack symptoms.

    Know the signs

    A 2003 study published in Circulation reviewed the symptoms of more than 500 female heart attack patients—and found that less than half of them experienced the common chest pain symptom during their episodes. According to the Mayo Clinic, women often have symptoms that are a result of blockages in not only their main arteries, but also in smaller arteries (called microvascular disease).

    Many of the women in the study reported shortness of breath, weakness and unusual fatigue, as well as nausea, dizziness, discomfort that feels like indigestion and upper back pain. Experts recommend that women experiencing a cluster of these symptoms, especially ones they’ve never felt before, should seek medical help.

    Protect your heart

    Prevention is the best medicine! Here are some simple ways to support your heart health and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, according to Merilyn Zaubzer, naturopath at our Oakland store.

    Exercise. Merilyn says it’s a good idea to work with a trainer to reduce belly fat, since women, specifically, have a higher risk of heart disease when extra weight is centered around the mid section (called visceral fat).

    Make sure there’s lots of fiber and fresh food in your diet, including garlic, which helps increase blood flow and circulation, reducing the risk of artery blockages.

    Try supplements that can boost cardiovascular health.

    EPA is especially important for supporting heart health. Merilyn likes Renew Life’s Norwegian Gold EPA 1000 Omega, which offers a high dose of EPA to help lower triglyceride levels.

    Hawthorn, one of Merilyn’s favorite heart herbs, directly supports cardiovascular function. She recommends Gaia Herbs’ Hawthorn Supreme.

    CoQ10 is a crucial nutrient to take preventively, as it supports cardiovascular function as an antioxidant. Merilyn recommends CoQ10 from Pure Encapsulations or Xymogen.

    As always, speak with your doctor about your heart health and whether prescription cholesterol or blood pressure medications are needed to help manage your heart disease risk.

    Ask a Pharmaca practitioner about other natural ways to support your heart.

  • Ways to Get Vitamin D in Overcast Climates

    Don't underestimate the role of vitamin D in a wide range of health benefits. While most associate the nutrient with bone development and overall health, it also helps fend off the common cold and reduce a person's risk for developing heart disease and certain types of cancers--as long as you get the correct amount. Experts recommend that people under the age of 50 should get close to 600 International Units (IUs) of vitamin D per day. So how do you get vitamin D, a vitamin hard to come by in most food sources?

    Here's a look at ways to get the recommended daily dose of vitamin D naturally:

    • Catch Some Rays
      It’s true that in overcast climates, the sun isn't beaming down on you with the same intensity as in a tropical climate, but being outside and soaking in vitamin D-producing rays is still good for you. Even on cloudy days or in overcast climates, UV rays can still make their way to your skin.
    • Go Fish
      Varieties of fish such as swordfish, salmon, trout, tuna and eel contain fatty acids, which thereby contain vitamin D. A 3-ounce salmon filet, for example, contains about 450 IUs of vitamin D.
    • Do Cry Over Spilled Milk 
      Drink lots of milk and consume other fortified dairy products, like yogurt. A fortified 8 ounce glass of milk contains as many as 100 IUs of vitamin D, while yogurt can offer up to 80 IUs. If you're not a fan of dairy products, pick up some fortified orange juice, which offers a similar amount.
    • The Yolk's On You
      Over the past several years, egg whites have increased in popularity due to the fact that they are low in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. But before you write off the egg yolk entirely, think again. Not only does the egg yolk contain approximately 40 IUs of vitamin D, it's also a good source of vitamins A and B, iron and calcium.

    Knowing how to get vitamin D, regardless of the climate you live in, doesn't have to be difficult. Getting outdoors and eating right are the essential keys to getting the proper amount of vitamin D. And as an added bonus, there are plenty of vitamin D supplements to help you boost your intake. Look to Pharmaca brand vitamin D supplements, in formulas for children and adults--and stay active and maintain a healthy diet--and you'll be on your way to reaping the benefits that vitamin D provides!

  • Coenzyme Q10: A Heart-Healthy Antioxidant for Optimal Aging

    SunCare2-ArticleCoenzyme Q10 (aka CoQ10 and ubiquinone) is a simple molecule that is naturally produced in our cells’ mitochondria. CoQ10 has the important role of helping convert sugar into energy or ATP—an energy source that’s essential for helping cells perform their primary functions. Coenzyme Q10 is used in enzyme systems that provide 90 percent of a cell’s energy, making it critical to our health.

    CoQ10: An invaluable antioxidant
    A second function of CoQ10 is to act as a natural, potent antioxidant. Antioxidants travel the body in search of free radicals that create what is called oxidative stress. Free radicals are also natural, forming as a byproduct of metabolism, but form at a greater rate when the body is exposed to environmental and lifestyle factors such as excessive sunlight, smoke and exhaust, poor diet and alcohol consumption.

    Oxidative stress occurs because free radicals are unstable molecules looking to find stability in another molecule—rendering the secondary molecule unstable. This chain of events can lead to disruption of healthy cells, cell death and damage to tissues, similar to what is believed to happen during the aging process. That’s why ample antioxidants are critical to us as we age.

    As with many important nutrients, natural CoQ10 production decreases with age. What makes CoQ10 different is that it is the only fat-soluble antioxidant our bodies naturally produce that has a special ability to restore itself back to its healthy state after successfully scavenging free radicals—making it an invaluable antioxidant in the fight against aging.

    Coenzyme Q10 and heart health
    In healthy heart tissue, CoQ10 is found in abundant supply. In fact, since the heart is the most active muscle in the body and uses the most energy, its cells tend to produce the highest concentrations of CoQ10. Individuals with heart conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a history of heart attack or congestive heart failure tend to have lower levels of CoQ10. It’s not clear whether CoQ10 deficiency is the cause of these conditions or simply an effect. Research, however, supports the idea that CoQ10 can help improve cardiovascular health and other heart conditions.

    Supplementing with Coenzyme Q10
    CoQ10 is found in minimal quantities in foods such as whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds, soybeans and eggs, with the highest concentrations found in meats and fish. The common doses used in research studies range between 90-400 mg/day. Ubiquinone, the oxidized form of CoQ10, is fat-soluble and is not well absorbed from the stomach and intestine. Ubiquinol, on the other hand, is the reduced, active antioxidant state of CoQ10 and is significantly better absorbed, particularly as we age.

    Is it time to start supplementing with CoQ10? Natural production of CoQ10 starts to slow down around age 30-35. If you have high blood pressure or cholesterol or a family history of heart disease, supplementing with CoQ10 can help protect you from the damaging effects of oxidative stress and provide your heart with the ability to work more efficiently.

    Here are some CoQ10 supplements I recommend:

    Pharmaca CoQ10 Ubiquinol QH 100mg
    Thorne Research Q-Best 50
    Metagenics NanoCell-Q (liquid CoQ10)
    Natural Factors Coenzyme Q10 200 mg
    Jarrow Formulas Ubiquinol QH-absorb
    New Chapter CoQ10+ Food Complex

  • The Skinny on Cholesterol

    So many things can affect our heart health—blood pressure, inflammation levels and, of course, cholesterol levels. In case you need a reminder of how cholesterol functions in the body (and why it’s important to our cardiovascular health), here’s a little primer.

    Cholesterol is a waxy substance that helps to build cells, produce hormones and aid in digestion. Cholesterol is naturally manufactured by the liver, and our bodies actually make all the cholesterol they need—about 1,000 mg per day. That’s why the USDA recommends a dietary intake of no more than 300 mg of cholesterol per day for healthy individuals, and no more than 200 mg for those at high risk for cardiovascular disease. (For comparison’s sake, one large egg contains about 185 mg).

    But if cholesterol is so important in the body, why is too much of it a bad thing? In order to get to where it’s needed, cholesterol has to attach itself to proteins to take it out of the liver and into the bloodstream. In combination with these proteins, this cholesterol becomes low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, which circulates throughout the body to drop off cholesterol where it’s needed.

    When there’s too much LDL cholesterol in the body—more than is necessary to do its daily cell-building work—it circulates in the bloodstream and begins to build up under the linings of our blood vessels. These deposits are called plaques, and too many plaques can narrow the vessels and block blood flow, leading to coronary artery disease.

    High-density lipoproteins, on the other hand, are the scavengers of circulating cholesterol, collecting and returning it to the liver where it can be broken down. That’s why higher HDL levels and lower LDL levels are best.

    Cholesterol levels are most often measured in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter (mg/dL) of blood, so here’s how the target numbers break down:

    Optimal total cholesterol: ≤ 200 mg/dL
    Optimal HDL: ≥ 60 mg/dL
    Optimal LDL: ≤ 100 mg/dL

    But because of how LDL and HDL relate to each other, the ratio of the two can be more important than your total cholesterol. For example, if you have an HDL level of 65 but your total cholesterol is 225—over the recommended limit—you get a ratio of about 3.5:1, an ideal ratio according to the American Heart Association.

    The most effective way to lower LDL cholesterol, says Dr. Brad Jacobs, MD, chair of Pharmaca’s Integrative Health Advisory Board, is through regular exercise and diet modifications, such as replacing saturated and trans fats (found in animal protein and processed foods) with healthy unsaturated fats such as nuts, avocado and fish oils. He adds that supplementation with garlic, fiber and plant-based sterols can also help lower LDL cholesterol. On the other tack, exercise can help raise HDL, says Dr. Jacobs, as can moderate alcohol intake (a glass of wine or beer per day) and supplementation with niacin. (Explore more of Dr. Jacobs' recommendations for cholesterol management.)

    Speak with a Pharmaca practitioner or your health care provider about prescription statins or natural supplements that can help you control your cholesterol.

  • Great Reasons to Love Garlic

    Garlic, also known as Allium sativum, has been around for centuries. Legend says it was found in Egyptian pyramids and ancient Greek temples as an offering to the Gods. And Hippocrates, considered the father of Western medicine, was said to have used garlic to treat cancerous tumors, pneumonia, digestive disorders, as a diuretic and for infections.

    Both cherished and sought for its healing powers, garlic is still being promoted as a health food with numerous therapeutic benefits. Raw, crushed garlic is both antibacterial and antiviral due to the presence of allicin, which has been shown to kill more than 20 types of bacteria.

    Garlic is also known to have cardiovascular benefits because it helps lower blood triglycerides and total cholesterol. The compound diallyl disulphide-oxide, found in heated or cooked garlic, has also been shown to lower serum cholesterol by preventing clotting in the arteries.

    Garlic’s antioxidant vitamins and sulfur-containing compounds help protect against oxidative stress and inflammation, which can stimulate the body to fight carcinogens and may even aid in preventing certain types of cancer, such as stomach cancer. Garlic's sulfur compounds have also been shown to regulate blood sugar metabolism, detoxify the liver and stimulate blood circulation. (Explore Pharmaca's garlic supplements now!)

    Cooking with garlic
    Let’s start with the basics:

    • Store in a cool, dark place (though not a refrigerator); garlic can be kept for several weeks.
    • Cooking garlic decreases the strength of its flavor, making it much milder than raw garlic. For a mild flavor, add whole cloves to food while it cooks or marinates, and then remove before serving (although I personally can’t imagine removing the garlic once is has become soft, creamy and delicious!). When sautéing garlic, be careful not to cook it too long at a high temperature, as it will brown very quickly and become bitter and unusable.  
    • The more finely garlic is chopped, the stronger its flavor will be.
    • Remove garlic odor from your hands by rubbing them with salt or lemon juice and then washing them with soap.
    • Get rid of garlic breath by chewing on a bit of fresh parsley (or better yet, make sure everyone near you has eaten their fair share of garlic, too!)

    Simple ways to add garlic into your diet:

    • Flavor soups, stews and casseroles
    • Roast with meats, fish, poultry and vegetables
    • Chop finely and add raw to salad dressings
    • Bake whole heads until softened and spread on bread

    Quick and Easy Hummus Recipe


    • 1 16 oz can of chickpeas or garbanzo beans
    • 1/4 cup liquid from can of chickpeas
    • Juice from 1 or 2 lemons*
    • 1 1/2 tablespoons tahini paste (sesame seed paste)
    • 1-2 cloves raw garlic, crushed*
    • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil


    Drain chickpeas, reserving the liquid and a few whole chickpeas for garnish. Combine remaining ingredients in blender or food processor. Blend for 2 minutes on low and then add the reserved liquid until thoroughly mixed and smooth.

    Place in serving bowl, and create a shallow well in the center of the hummus.

    Add a small amount (1-2 tablespoons) of olive oil in the well and garnish with parsley and the reserved whole chick peas.

    Hummus can be served immediately or covered and refrigerated. Hummus can be used for dipping with fresh or toasted pita, sliced vegetables or as a spread for sandwiches or wraps.

    *The amount of garlic and lemon juice can be adjusted according to your personal taste. If you are new to using raw garlic, you may want to start with just one clove, as the flavor can become stronger as the hummus sits.


    Add a dash of red chili pepper or cayenne pepper for a spicier hummus
    Top with roasted red bell peppers or finely chopped green olives
    Add cooked, chopped spinach for added iron

    Sharon Wegner is a Certified Holistic Health Coach, Nutritional Consultant and member of the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. Sharon teaches her clients how to make healthier food and lifestyle choices by creating simple and sustainable changes. She shares her passion for cooking with her clients by teaching them how to make fresh and delicious REAL food. For more healthy recipes and to find out more about her work visit her at Essentials for Healthy Living blog.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: jasleen_kaur

  • The Healthy Benefits of Omega-3s

    The reported health benefits of omega-3s keep piling up—from boosting heart health to improving memory and concentration. Omega-3s are considered “essential” fatty acids because our body needs them for a variety of bodily functions. Since we can’t make them on our own, however, we must get them through diet or supplementation. The two main omega-3s are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are found most commonly in coldwater fish, but are also present in oils from algae, plants and flaxseed.

    Despite their “essential” label, many people are still deficient in omega-3s, and this deficiency has been cited as one of the top 10 causes of preventable death in the US among dietary, lifestyle and metabolic risk factors.

    Here are some of the most well-researched benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

    Cardiovascular health
    Omega-3s have more scientific research backing their benefits for cardiovascular health than any other nutritional supplement. Strong evidence—thousands of clinical trials, in fact—suggest that EPA and DHA enhance overall cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol, high blood pressure and elevated triglycerides. The American Heart Association even recommends that people with coronary heart disease get 1 g each of EPA and DHA per day.

    Omega-3s also seem to reduce the risk of recurring heart attacks and abnormal heart rhythms in people who have already had a heart attack. In addition, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, large population studies have shown that people getting significant amounts of omega-3s in their diets have a 50 percent lower risk of stroke.

    Alzheimer’s and Dementia
    Recent research has shown that omega-3s may slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. In a study published in May in the journal Neurology, researchers found that people who consumed the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids had the lowest levels of beta-amyloid plaque buildup, a marker in the brain for dementia and Alzheimer’s.

    According to the Mayo Clinic, omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain function. Because people with depression may have lower levels of EPA and DHA—important brain chemicals—they can benefit from supplementing with the EPA and DHA found in fish oil. It has also been shown that cultures that consume more omega-3 rich foods have generally lower incidences of depression.

    Prenatal health
    It is widely know that the EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids are vital for healthy infant development, especially for the eyes, nervous system and brain. In addition, supplementing with fish oil during pregnancy has been found to reduce the rate of respiratory illness in infants (according to a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics).

    Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, MD, member of Pharmaca’s Integrative Health Advisory Board, recommends 200-300 mg of DHA starting in the 25th week of pregnancy (learn more about her prenatal nutrition recommendations).

    Rheumatoid arthritis
    A number of small studies have found that fish oil helps reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, including joint pain and stiffness. A 2007 article in the journal Pain analyzed studies that tested the effects of omega-3s on pain and inflammation and showed that by taking omega-3s, patients were able to lower their doses of prescription anti-inflammatory medications and experienced a decrease in pain.

    Dr. Tori Hudson, ND, and member of Pharmaca’s Integrative Health Advisory Board, highly recommends omega-3 fatty acids for her patients experiencing any kind of joint pain.

    Explore our selection of omega-3 fish oils either in store or at pharmaca.com.

  • Ask the MD: Men's Heart Health

    By Dr. Brad Jacobs, MD, Chair of Pharmaca's Integrative Health Advisory Board

    Heart disease and related health problems, such as cerebro-vascular accidents (e.g. strokes), comprise the leading cause of death in the United States. I recommend using the Reynolds Risk Score calculator to calculate your risk for developing a heart attack or stroke over the next 10 years.

    So how should men think about reducing their risk for heart disease or strokes? First, learn the facts. The major risk factors for heart disease and stroke include age (<55 years in men and <65 years in women), family history (first degree relatives experiencing a heart attack), use of tobacco, elevated blood pressure, poor cholesterol profile (LDL>130, HDL <40), diabetes and an elevated c-reactive protein lab test.

    Second, realize that lifestyle changes are the most potent, safest and cheapest “medicine” available—far more potent than any single prescription drug or natural remedy available.

    Third, if you are at least 40 years of age, talk to your physician about the possibility of taking a baby aspirin daily (81 mg, enteric coated). Research has shown that low doses of aspirin lower heart disease risk and lower cancer rates by 33 percent.

    Risk factors you can influence  

    Smoking tobacco triples your risk of heart disease and stroke—quit while you’re ahead!  More smokers die from heart disease than lung cancer, and 30 percent of all heart disease deaths are caused by cigarette smoke. After two years of not smoking tobacco, your risk for heart disease returns to the same risk as someone who never smoked cigarettes.

    High blood pressure: A healthy blood pressure is 120 mmHg/80 mmHg.  Check the American Heart Association’s website for an easy-to-use calculator to determine your risks.

    Fortunately there are several things you can do to lower high blood pressure. Stopping smoking, decreasing salt and alcohol consumption, managing your stress through mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation, exercise and reducing your weight can all reduce your blood pressure. (Read more about my weight management tips here).

    As for supplements, magnesium and calcium are thought to have modest blood pressure-lowering effects, and CoQ10 is thought to lower systolic blood pressure.

    Cholesterol: Make sure you have both your HDL and LDL tested, since total cholesterol is less relevant. The LDL should be as low as possible, and the “good stuff,” HDL, as high as possible. The general guidelines are to aim for higher than 45 for HDL, and below 130 for LDL—unless you have diabetes or a history of heart disease, in which case an LDL below 100 is recommended.

    To raise your HDL, daily exercise (even 20 minutes daily has large health benefits!), one glass of alcohol per day and supplementary niacin has been shown to increase levels.

    Modifying your diet has been shown to dramatically lower LDL levels. I recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 5-10 percent total calories, increasing fiber and whole grains to 25 grams or more daily, and increasing low glycemic-load fruits and deeply pigmented vegetables to 5-7 servings daily.

    In addition, reconfigure your plate of food so that two-thirds of the plate is filled with vegetables, and the remainder split between non-animal or lean animal protein and whole grain carbohydrates. When you do that, it can dramatically change your overall heart health and cholesterol. (For more information on healthy eating, I recommend the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Pyramid by Dr. Willett.)

    I also recommend the following supplements for improving cholesterol:
    ·     Niacin: Take in small doses several times per day to help increase your HDL levels.
    ·     Garlic: Research has linked it to modest lowering of cholesterol, and it can be beneficial for overall health.
    ·     Omega-3s: Strong evidence shows that these reduce your triglycerides, and reduce your risk of dying during a heart attack.
    ·     Plant sterols can be quite effective in lowering LDL levels, especially beta-sitosterols. You can find them in spreads such as Benacol or in supplements like Natural Factors’ Cholesterol Formula.

    Diabetes: Maintaining normalized blood sugars levels is paramount for those with diabetes. If you are at risk for developing diabetes, then the lifestyle program we discussed above should become an essential part of your daily life.

    C-reactive protein levels: This lab test is a marker of your overall inflammatory state. We previously thought aspirin was good for heart disease because it thinned the blood, but current research has found its anti-inflammatory effects are likely the true cause (and help explain why it reduces cancer rates as well). For similar reasons, good oral hygiene reduces chronic inflammation and may thereby lower heart disease rates.

    The bottom line? Reduce heart disease and stroke risk with simple steps like flossing your teeth, taking a baby aspirin, exercising and drinking alcohol in modest amounts, and eating modest amounts of food, mostly plants.

    For more advice about maintain good cardiovascular health, speak with a Pharmaca practitioner today.

  • Adaptogens in Focus: Cordyceps

    A few years back I took a trip to Nepal, and spent nearly a month hiking through the Annapurna mountain range. It was absolutely breathtaking scenery, to say the least—miles of trails on which we rarely saw other people. Other than a daily dose of donkeys and porters, our encounters were limited to local Nepalese and their yaks spread thin through tiny, scattered villages.

    On one morning hike, however, I came across an unusual sight. I rounded a bend in the trail and entered a huge subalpine meadow, recently dusted with snow. There in the meadow, where one would expect quiet and emptiness, were multiple white figures milling about; men fully garbed in hazmat suits, collecting something from the ground and placing it in buckets.

    I think I chalked up the experience to high-elevation hallucination and continued on. It was only days later that I remembered to ask a local guide about what they were doing. His answer, “collecting mushrooms,” left me baffled.

    As it turned out, however, this wasn’t just any (perhaps radioactive?) mushroom these men were collecting, but a long sought-after medical fungus called cordyceps, one of the most powerful fungal adaptogens on the planet.

    Our phenomenal fungal friends

    Cordyceps sinensis is a tiny, strange-looking sac fungus that behaves as a rather nasty parasitic species. Documented in traditional Tibetan Medicine since the 15th century, cordyceps has been and still is used as a “primary Jing tonic” in Chinese Medicine, taken to reinvigorate the life force. As it was such a rare and difficult thing to find, the fungus was purportedly reserved for use by only the Emperor, ingested to ensure his long life and vitality.

    Fortunately for us, a Catholic priest visiting China in the 17th century was given some of the medicine, and consequently brought cordyceps home with him to the West. It is now a widely used herbal supplement, a healer with what seems like endless benefits for body and mind.

    Cordyceps, like other adaptogens, assists the body in creating and maintaining balance during times of stress. It directly influences how our cells make ATP, the body’s energy currency, and enhances oxygen utilization. Where stress depletes overall vitality—and specifically can take a toll on sex drive and physical exertion—cordyceps acts as a stimulant and phenomenal aphrodisiac, reinvigorating the neuro-endocrine system.

    As long-term stress also diminishes the activity and balance of the immune system, cordyceps has been found to be extremely effective at reducing infection and enhancing defense mechanisms in the body, specifically the T lymphocyte activity involved in cell-mediated immunity. Particularly in cases of respiratory illness, cordyceps significantly reduces healing time, and appears to prevent future infections if taken regularly. Given this natural affinity for the lung system, it is also used as an effective treatment for asthma and elevation sickness.

    Compounds found in cordyceps also assist in the removal of excess cholesterol, increasing the fluidity of the blood and reducing the potential of cardiovascular challenges and damage. Through protecting liver function it helps to reduce the production of excess cholesterol and to balance glucose utilization, protecting against blood sugar imbalances, detoxification issues and the potential for diabetes.

    Finally, cordyceps appears to act as an antioxidant in the body, picking up the damaging free radicals produced in metabolic processes. In this way it protects against overall cell aging, memory loss, and damage to cellular membranes during times of excess stress.

    Cordyceps has still more healing properties, and I encourage you to research and experience it for yourself. It appears that there are very few conditions we experience in our stressful lives that it won’t help in some way.

    Fortunately we no longer have to wait on men in hazmat suits to gather cordyceps for us, as it can be grown in culture and will still retain its healing ability. But ensure you are getting the CS-4 strain of cordyceps, the only strain that is capable of developing the necessary compounds in the absence of the elevation and environmental stress that would normally stimulate their development.

    While you can still buy cordyceps sourced from the Tibetan plateaus, the global demand for this healer has resulted in significant ecological damage to those areas, and I don’t personally endorse it.

    Standard dose is 1000 mg per day, and I recommend the Mushroom Science brand. Their extract is made using a hot water process that significantly enhances the availability of the healing components. Depending on the condition that you’re attempting to treat or balance, you may want to try higher doses as well, and a Pharmaca practitioner can advise you in this. Side effects are relatively unknown, though it has been suggested that those people taking immuno-suppressive drugs may want to avoid it, and so far it has not been studied enough to be considered safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

    Ciel is a certified Wellness Coach and Holistic Health Practitioner in Berkeley, Calif., and works at the Rockridge Pharmaca in Oakland. She employs her background in herbs, nutrition, psychoneuroimmunology and Shamanic practices (and a few hundred other modalities) to guide people to a greater understanding of their life processes, leading to vibrant health and much more laughter.

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