Numbers are powerful. Just ask Gwen Mergian. The first number to slap Gwen in the face was the number 50.
“When I reached my 50s, I felt like I was living on borrowed time,” says Gwen. “My father died at age 49 from a massive coronary and my grandmother had a sudden fatal heart attack in her 50s.”
The second number that stopped her cold was 303.
"My diet was fairly healthy, even though I didn’t really exercise. I had no chronic disease, but I was maybe ten to 20 pounds overweight,” says Gwen. “Still, a routine blood check came back showing that my total cholesterol was 303."
That number put Gwen in the American Heart Association’s highest risk category. The AHA says that having total cholesterol of 240 milligrams per deciliter of blood or higher presents a person with twice the risk for coronary heart disease as someone whose cholesterol level is 200 mg/dL or below. Gwen’s doctor recommended she start on a cholesterol-lowering statin drug. Trained as a nurse, Gwen didn’t like that idea. She decided to bring the scientific method home.
“I read up on all everything that is supposed to lower cholesterol and I thought, I could conduct my own experiment. I could be the subject, the researcher and the reporter,” she says.
Gwen proposed to her doctor that she try to lower her cholesterol herself. If at the end of six months, her numbers weren’t good, she would go on the drug. Moldering in Gwen’s basement was an old copy of Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease. It is a low-fat diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.
Gwen’s goal was ambitious—and it involved another number. She targeted her LDL cholesterol, the so-called “bad cholesterol,” which can be a more accurate gauge of risk. Her LDL was 193—again in the AHA’s highest risk category—and she set a target level of 130.
“I was committed, but I didn’t really think I could do it,” she admits. “I am a very stubborn person, though, and when I put my mind to something I’m like a tenacious dog.”
Gwen says pizza was the hardest thing for her to give up. She also liked meat and cheese, eggs and omelets, and had ice cream about three times a week. But the real hurdle was a big one: she didn’t really like vegetables.
Nevertheless, in March 2007 Gwen switched to a plant-based diet. She gave up meat, except salmon a few times a week, for the omega 3 fatty acids. She ate huge salads and tried grains like kasha, quinoa and cous cous. She loves to bake and adjusted recipes to cut down on fat and sugar.
“I wanted to see what I could do,” she says. “I didn’t want to cheat. If you do, you have to think about it: Well, I cheated yesterday, so today maybe I’ll… I cheated only twice in six months, once when a very kind woman made a pie and I couldn't refuse a piece.”
After six months, Gwen's total cholesterol dropped to 177, well below the 200 mg/dL benchmark. Her LDL cholesterol came in at 96, almost 100 mg/dL below her starting number and 34 mg/dL below her target of 130.
In addition, Gwen lost about 20 pounds. At her highest weight, Gwen had been 140 pounds, and at five-feet, five inches tall, a size 14. Gwen is satisfied with her weight now, even though she has regained five pounds.
Gwen continues the Ornish plan. She takes a multi-vitamin and red yeast rice and flax seed, which are said to lower cholesterol naturally. She drinks white or green tea, and a drink she mixes from apple cider vinegar, pomegranate juice and grape or apple juice. Three or four times a week she has a scientific dose of red wine, about 30 millileters.
Gwen admits that exercise has not been a priority. She will sometimes walk the two and a half miles home from work. At the gym, she works out two or three times a week, usually speed walking on a treadmill. Gwen bought a bicycle that reminded her of her mother’s 1970s chestnut-brown five-speed bike. She began biking around her neighborhood, and eventually worked her way up to an 11-mile ride suggested by a friend.
“I was going to say no, but then I thought, You can try, Gwen,” she says. “I had to stop four times and walk my bike up the hills, but I did it.”
Gwen has also tried means of lowering stress, such as tai chi, mindfulness meditation and yoga. Focusing on making change fun, she has tried activities said to stimulate the right side of the brain, such as writing with her left hand or sketching upside down and left-handed.
What started as an experiment has turned into a lifestyle, which Gwen blogs about for the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union. She's grateful for the opportunity she’s had to expand her horizons.
“This experiment took me in directions I wouldn’t have expected. It brings me such joy and pleasure,” she says. “As you age, it’s easy to get into a rut and experience things as diminishing. I find myself embracing new things and as I look ahead, I want to be healthy and I feel like there are good things to come. That’s the blessing and the bounties of this way of life.”