The last topic to discuss is the phenomenon within our physiology called oxidative stress. This is a big buzzword in health circles and it plays an important role in the development of a heart attack. As you can guess we are going to show how an animal-based diet helps reduce oxidative stress and prevents heart attacks.
Up to this point we have laid the foundation of what causes a heart attack, shown how burning fat and ketones are best for your heart, and discussed how an Autonomic Nervous System imbalance can lead to a heart attack. Now let’s add the last piece, oxidative stress, to the equation. Here is where we are in the series:
Part 1 – The Foundational Imbalances That Cause Heart Attacks
Part 2 – Cholesterol, Fat Burning, Ketones, and Metabolic Flexibility
Part 3 – The Autonomic Nervous System Imbalance
Part 4 – (This post) Toxins, Oxidative Stress, and Nitric Oxide
Part 5 – The Evolutionary Mismatch Behind It All
What is Oxidative Stress?
We must define oxidative stress by first talking about what causes it. It is caused by an excess of what are called free radicals. Free radicals are a necessary part of physiology and are made just by us burning molecules of food for energy. The problem is when we get excess free radicals in our bodies, and we can get them from more places than just the internal process of making energy.
Our physiology is all about the exchange of electrons from one molecule to another. Molecules like to have an even number of electrons on them, they like to be paired as this makes them stable. If they don’t have an even number, then they are unpaired and the molecule that has an uneven amount of electrons is called a free radical.
It is given this name because this free radical will do anything it can to become paired, including steal an electron from another tissue or molecule in the body. When it steals an electron it can cause dysfunction, damage, or inflammation to that part of the body. You can see why having an excess of these would be a bad thing.
Free radicals must be made in order for us to make energy, much like a car has to make a waste product of exhaust when burning fuel. Luckily, we have built-in mechanisms to help take care of these free radicals and they are called antioxidants. Our body makes antioxidants like glutathione and superoxide dismutase that are very good at neutralizing free radicals (1).
What Causes Oxidative Stress?
It is thought that eating plant foods that have so-called antioxidants will also help decrease the amount of oxidative stress that we have by taking care of free radicals, but research has shown that this is not true (2,3,4). In one study, removing antioxidant rich foods like fruits and vegetables caused oxidative stress markers to go down. (5) Could this mean that intake of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables increases oxidative stress?
Now we have to discuss what causes an excess of free radicals in the body. Like I said, just the process of breaking the chemical bonds of our food and harvesting the energy stored in that bond to make energy for our bodies will produce free radicals. However, there seems to be a difference in the number of free radicals made and inflammation or oxidative stress produced when we are burning different foods for fuel. Research has shown that eating and using carbohydrates as a fuel source will lead to more oxidative stress and inflammation (6) than we would have if we at a high fat, high protein diet (7). We have already seen that eating antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables does not reduce oxidative stress and may increase it, now we have a second reason why an animal-based diet high in fat and low in carbohydrate will help prevent heart attacks by decreasing oxidative stress.
We also must mention here that any toxic chemical or element we are exposed to can act as a free radical as well. Heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum, and arsenic can all act as free radicals in the body and everyone is exposed to these on a daily basis. (8) There are countless chemicals to try and avoid so we can keep our oxidative stress to a minimum. My previous blog post on toxins goes into this in more detail.
Our bodies production of antioxidants is what neutralizes these free radicals and keeps them from causing damage, but if we are eating a high carb diet and getting exposed to lots of toxins then this antioxidant system can get overwhelmed and the free radicals can have their way with the tissues in our bodies. As we discussed above, eating antioxidants in plants doesn’t seem to help, so we have to make sure we are giving our body the things it needs to produce enough antioxidants to keep things balanced.
One way to do this is to make sure you are eating the connective tissue parts of an animal, like the tendons or cartilage in joints. This is easily done by making bone broth from joint bones or supplementing collagen protein. These tissues have higher amounts of glycine which is the amino acid that drives the production of glutathione, our main antioxidant. (9,10) This goes to show that we evolved to eat many parts of an animal and not just the muscle meat.
Oxidative Stress and Atherosclerosis
Now that we have thoroughly discussed the concept of free radicals and oxidative stress we now need to illustrate how it can cause heart disease and heart attacks. To do this we need to discuss what’s called 4th phase water. For an in-depth discussion of 4th phase water and references to what I am about to discuss please read The Fourth Phase of Water by Dr. Gerald Pollack.
Water, of which almost 50% of our blood is, has the ability to hold energy. When it has sufficient energy and it is next to a hydrophilic (water loving) surface, like the inner wall of an artery, it will form what is called 4th phase water next to that surface. I discuss 4th phase water in the arteries in more detail in my ebook and in my heart course, but now it is sufficient just to know that 4th phase water forms on the inner lining of arteries if the water in the blood holds enough energy.
This layer of 4th phase water is what lines our arteries to protect them from the contents of the blood flowing in the artery. 4th phase water is also called exclusion zone water because the other characteristic of 4th phase water is that it excludes anything that isn’t it, so if it lines an artery then everything that shouldn’t touch the lining of the artery is kept in the flow of blow in the center of the artery because it cannot penetrate the exclusion zone water.
It is important to note that modern cardiology is obsessed with cholesterol, specifically LDL-C. They watch this number because it more readily gets into the lining of the artery causing atherosclerosis. However, a healthy 4th phase water lining in our arteries will exclude LDL-C and keep it in the flow of blood. Deposition of LDL-C into an artery will only happen if there is a breakdown of the 4th phase water that protects the artery and then subsequent damage to that artery once the 4th phase water is gone. So, what causes the breakdown of 4th phase water? Oxidative stress.
Because of the way 4th phase water forms it is a negatively charged layer of water. Therefore, it has the ability to donate electrons, which is what free radicals are desperately trying to find. When we have oxidative stress in our bodies caused by excess free radicals this can break down the protective 4th phase water lining and then cause damage to the artery wall. So excess cholesterol, specifically LDL-C, is not the cause of atherosclerosis, but oxidative stress and inflammation is (11,12,13) and LDL-C is only an issue if we get a break down of 4th phase water and then artery lining damage.
An animal-based diet can raise levels of LDL-C, but this is only something to be worried about when someone also has elevated markers of oxidative stress and inflammation. If there is healthy 4th phase water protecting our arteries then LDL particles won’t be able to get near the lining of an artery. High LDL-C is actually a good thing when there are low markers of oxidative stress and inflammation. However, if there are high markers of inflammation and oxidative stress this indicates a breakdown of 4th phase water which would allow LDL to get deposited into a artery wall and cause atherosclerosis. Therefore, high LDL-C is not a problem when someone also has low triglycerides, high HDL-C, low hsCRP, and low markers of insulin resistance and oxidative stress.
Oxidative Stress and Heart Attacks
So that is how oxidative stress causes the atherosclerotic side of heart disease, but how does it contribute to heart attacks? Like we have just discussed, excess free radicals causing oxidative stress, if left unchecked, can cause the destruction of the arteries. This is not good for many reasons but as far as heart attacks are concerned this is not good because the cells lining the arteries make a very important molecule called Nitric Oxide (NO) which they cannot make if they are damaged by atherosclerosis. NO is famously known for dilating our blood vessels to increase blood flow, but that is not all it does.
Because the cells lining the arteries are where we make NO, if we have damaged arteries then the amount of NO in our bodies can be compromised. Further, NO can act as an electron donor and if there are excess free radicals floating around then they can deplete the NO we have in our bodies by stealing electrons from NO. We have already discussed how high carbohydrate diets increase oxidative stress, but research even shows that because of the increase in oxidative stress when we eat carbohydrate it can deplete NO as well. (14,15)
Not producing enough NO in the arteries because of damage due to oxidative stress and free radicals stealing electrons and destroying NO can lead to chronically decreased levels of NO in our bodies. This is a big problem when it comes to heart attacks.
Like we mentioned in Part 1 (head back to review if you need a refresher), NO is a very important signaling molecule for the parasympathetic (non-stress or relax) aspect of the nervous system (16). Without enough NO the parasympathetic signal cannot get into heart cells and stimulate cGMP. This will exacerbate any potential imbalance that was already there due to an imbalanced stress response that we discussed in detail in Part 3.
Oxidative stress can impair the antioxidant defense system of the heart (17), which can lead to decreased NO. This can lead to decreased signaling of the parasympathetic signal to heart cells. If the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) signal to a heart cell becomes too sympathetic (stress state) dominant this can cause a sudden surge of adrenaline to the heart and if we are not well adapted to burning fat then the heart is forced to burn glucose for fuel during this stress response. Burning glucose causes a build-up of lactic acid in the heart cells (angina) causing swelling and the prevention of calcium into the heart cells. This prevents contraction of heart muscle and causes heart tissue death.
To review, an animal-based diet will create less oxidative stress by decreasing free radical production and, as long as we are getting adequate connective tissue protein, upregulating antioxidant production. It will help us avoid and ANS imbalance by not create a hostile environment in the gut or in the vagus nerve because we are not eating plant toxins that do these things. Lastly, it will make us a ketogenic fat burning machine which makes the heart less likely to ever convert to burning glucose for fuel. For these reasons, an animal-based checks all the boxes for helping to reverse the imbalances that lead to a heart attack.
In Part 5 we are going to step back and take a look at the big picture to understand what is driving these imbalances in our modern day society and what we can do to avoid them.
See you next time! Stay healthy out there!