Me and My Heart: A Personal Story

From the WebMD Archives

By Steven Sultanoff, PhD, as told to Stephanie Watson

I've had high cholesterol since, well, forever. It was diagnosed in my early 20s. It runs in my family. My father had it, too. We have an inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. It can make our cholesterol levels get high enough to damage our blood vessels and cause a heart attack.

My father died of a heart attack when he was 50, so I'm well aware of my risks. Twelve years ago, I woke up one day, didn't feel great, and had to undergo quintuple bypass surgery that very day. I've also had stents put in to keep my arteries open.

I'm in my 60s now, and I'm doing everything I can to protect my heart so that I don't end up like my dad. I've been on a variety of cholesterol-lowering medications and niacin. I've tried herbal remedies. And I eat well and exercise as much as possible.

A Clean Diet

I talked to many doctors and nutritionists about what makes up a healthy, low-cholesterol, high-fiber diet. I took their input, and then decided what works for me.

On an average day, I start with a breakfast of oatmeal. It helps lower my LDL cholesterol. I use raw oats and I don't add any sugar. To add some natural sweetness, I'll toss on some cinnamon and raisins. On some mornings, my wife will cook turkey bacon and eggs.

Lunch is typically a tuna sandwich with a bean salad. My dinners can vary. We eat salmon quite a bit. It's high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart-protective. Once in a while I'll order a steak when we go out for dinner, but I'll eat a relatively lean cut of beef.

We also eat a lot of chicken, but we never fry it. Everything gets baked or boiled. I don't put sugar or salt on anything, either.

I’m careful, but I still indulge in some pleasures, like the occasional French fries, ice cream, and chocolate. When I do order a burger, I won't add mayonnaise and I'll get the fries unsalted.

These approaches work for me, but everyone needs to find their own path.


Team Player

Before COVID, I would play softball three times a week on three different teams. I'd also exercise at the gym. I'd ride the exercise bike, work on my arm strength, and lift some weights.

These days, my gym isn't open, so I try to bike three times a week for about an hour. The first three-quarters of my ride is pretty vigorous. It's mostly uphill. So I get a good cardiovascular workout.

A Sense of Gratitude

I'm not a social person, but I do have some close friendships. That social connection keeps me healthy. My wife is also very supportive, especially when it comes to my diet. She cooks a fair amount, and she knows to prepare smaller portions for me. She doesn't add butter and salt to her recipes, either.

We always talk about how grateful we are to be in the position we are now -- retired, and living in a place we love. A lot of my stress reduction has to do with keeping a positive attitude and being grateful for all we have.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

When it comes to stress, I've worked to accept things as they are and let go of the small stuff. Most of life is the small stuff.

In nursing they say, "All bleeding eventually stops." I embrace that perspective. There's almost nothing that I -- or anyone else -- must address right this second.

I also believe that everything I do is a choice. Even when things are out of my control, I do have control over how I react.

Enjoy the Scenery

Sometimes, to wind down, I'll hang out outside in my backyard. I live in California, and we have a really lush backyard that looks like an English garden. I'll go out there and watch the birds, enjoy the greenery, and breathe in the fresh air.

I also play the guitar. That's one of my biggest stress relievers. I play poorly, but I enjoy it.

I take time to do what most people might call "doing nothing." I'll sit on my porch and watch the bikers, walkers, joggers, and cars pass by. If the mood strikes me, I'll just lie down and rest.

Sometimes, you have to let go of all expectations of "doing" or "accomplishing" something.


Laughter Is the Best Medicine

Humor is another big part of my life. In fact, I'm an international expert in the therapeutic use of humor. I teach programs on humor as a stress buster, and a form of therapy.

I try to incorporate at least 30 minutes of humor into each day. I'll watch sitcoms, do some word play, or watch funny videos that my friends send me.

Research says that people who laugh regularly have healthier blood vessel linings, lower blood pressure, and fewer heart attacks. They also tend to need less heart medicine.

Humor also eases things like anxiety, depression, and anger.

And it feels good! The more I laugh, the less stressed I am.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 7, 2021


Mayo Clinic: "Cholesterol: Top foods to improve your numbers." "Omega-3 in Fish: How Eating Fish Helps Your Heart."

UPMC: "How Laughing Can Benefit Your Heart."

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