Yup. It happens. And I'm living proof. It all started at a health fair sponsored by my insurance company at work. They were offering to give us $75 to complete a simple health assessment (BMI, blood pressure, and testing blood for sugars and cholesterol). Imagine my surprise when my total cholesterol level came back as 273.
That's me, in the "High Risk" category. But how? All of my co-workers' eyes popped out of their heads. The vegan? High cholesterol? How?! After a crash-Google-course on the nature and origin of cholesterol, it appeared that the body creates up to 75% of cholesterol, while diet contributes to the remaining 25%. It looked like my genes were to blame.
But that just didn't make sense! Cholesterol was supposed to be something that overweight people dealt with - those who ate a surplus of steak and red meat and other artery-clogging animal products. I had been vegan for three years, how could this be? My efforts to eliminate cruelty-based foods from my diet was also supposed to ensure that I had excellent health, right? It just wasn't fair.
I followed up with my GP and it was verified that my cholesterol was at 279. My doctor told me that if I were obese I would be a ticking time bomb. Luckily, I have a heart-conscious diet and a low BMI on my side.
He wanted to start me on a statin. Both of my parents are on statins, one of whom reporting severe muscle problems due to the drugs. Like many vegans or other health-conscious people I wanted the least amount of pharmaceuticals pumped through my body. There had to be an alternative, right?
A co-worker recommended I look into red yeast rice extract. Couldn't hurt, could it? My doctor, being one to allow personal exploration and to humor me, allowed me to try more natural remedies for one month, and then my cholesterol would be tested again. So, I drove directly to a health store and purchased 30 days worth of red yeast rice extract.
Fast forward one month and I had my blood drawn once more. My cholesterol had dropped 50 points. My doctor was amazed and advised that I continue doing what I was doing and we'll do bloodwork again in three months. Phew!
So what is red yeast rice? It is an HMG-CoA reductase inhibitor (or, in other words, a statin). It does just what the Rx drugs would do, although I'm not pumping my body full of chemicals and risking the severe side effects that are almost commonplace with such medications. So, I continue to take my red yeast rice daily and await my next lipid test to see if my cholesterol has lowered even more.
I am also starting to take my physical fitness more seriously, as it can raise HDL levels (the "good" cholesterol), which can fight LDL levels (the "bad" cholesterol). With this also comes the revelation that just because I eat a pretty healthy diet doesn't mean that my body is as healthy as it could be. With my original bloodwork, which was ordered by my doctor, I also discovered that I have B12 (also hereditary) and Vitamin D deficiencies. I am taking an oral Vitamin D supplement and need B12 shots monthly because my body does not absorb it through my stomach the way it should (my mother is also receives these shots and she is an omni!).
Bottom line? You cannot underestimate the power of genetics on the way your body functions, even if you make the most conscious strides to control your diet and fitness. Do yourself a favor and get a full bloodwork work-up and just see where you might need help. You'll thank yourself down the line. And if you discover something a little unsettling? Don't worry, you have the fortitude to endure anything. And you're not alone!
Check out A Vegan with Hyperlipidemia: Part II