Let me begin with what will strike anyone familiar with the matter of vascular disease as an heretical statement: I am fairly certain that my vascular disease is in the process of reversing, as the numbers at the end of this brief story seem strongly to indicate. So I want to share this story, because if my personal experience is tested and proven in a sufficiently rigorous way with a large group of subjects, the consequences for the relief of human suffering would be quite astonishing.
I first began limping, due to a very painful left calf muscle, at the age of 73 on a beautiful spring day in 2014. I was on the way to our mailbox at the end of a long country driveway when it began, and I thought – “A charley-horse. It will heal soon. No problem.” But it lasted for three months. At one point, I couldn’t walk for more than a hundred yards without needing to rest until the pain went away, and for a former Olympic athlete who has kept physically active at a very high level all his life, this was rather disconcerting.
After a basic ultrasound scan, I got the bad news that despite a good diet and lifelong participation in endurance sports, I had serious vascular disease in both legs, and I ended up with the top vascular specialist at Toronto General Hospital. More serious scans followed. Meanwhile, the limping had stopped, which was a great relief. But the specialist warned: “This is a progressive disease, it will be back.” Until then, I was to see him annually for ultrasound monitoring to track the rate of narrowing of my arteries. So I went home a little shocked and depressed, but was soon all over the internet and Google Scholar, looking for good research on this disease in the best medical journals. What I found out, and what I did, in the somewhat desperate hope of at least stalling, if not reversing this condition, amounts to a rather surprising story.
It is a story about dynamite, the Nobel prize, and a substance produced by the human body called Nitric Oxide (the chemical symbol is NO). Alfred Nobel, who suffered from heart disease, and died of it in 1896, had been informed by his company doctor of the curious fact that of their many thousands of employees, the hundreds who were being monitored for their angina, had remarked how they felt much better when at work, than at home on the weekends. Nobel’s many factories produced dynamite, which is made with nitroglycerin, which emits Nitric Oxide as a gas. The company doctor realized there was some mysterious connection between this gas, which permeated all the factories, and the relief of angina. So he begged his boss to go into the factory and breathe some in daily. But Nobel refused, insisting that nothing so destructive as dynamite could possibly heal the sick, and soon thereafter, he died, aged 63.
This interesting and ironic tale is related in a little book by Dr. Louis Ignarro, entitled NO More Heart Disease, to which I was led by my own research in the medical journals . The “NO” in the title is a play on the chemical symbol for Nitric Oxide. It happened that Drs. Louis J. Ignarro, Robert F. Furchgott, and Ferid Murad were jointly awarded The Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1998, “for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system.” Why was that important? Because the small amounts of Nitric Oxide that are produced naturally by the human body have the effect of relaxing the lining of arteries and blood vessels. This in turn improves blood flow, lowers blood pressure, alleviates limping, and other clinical symptoms of vascular disease.
So the hunt was on for ways to boost the body’s own supply of Nitric Oxide. It soon became clear that some natural amino acids such as L-Arginine, which are found in red meats, poultry, fish and dairy products, boost the body’s own production of Nitric Oxide. Experiments have shown that patients put on an intravenous drip of L-Arginine get an immediate boost of Nitric Oxide, which dilates all their blood vessels and arteries. But feeding people pounds of these foods, or hooking them up to an IV drip all day is impractical.
So in his book, Dr. Ignarro recommended taking a combination of NO supplements and anti-oxidants in what I call the “Ignarro cocktail.” This is a combination of L-Arginine powder (which can be made in a lab. He recommends up to 6 grams/day), L-Citrulline (750 mg/day), and the anti-oxidants Folic Acid and Alpha-Lipoic Acid. So, in a hopeful, but I admit highly skeptical frame of mind, I bought all these powders and pills, and have been taking them daily for two years.
Just before I began this solo experiment, within minutes of cycling up a moderate hill, I was getting extremely sharp ischemic pain in the front-thigh areas of both legs (specifically, in the rectis femoris and vastus medialis muscles). This was so painful I actually considered giving up the cycling I have loved for four decades. However, within a month of taking this daily cocktail – and I am speaking now as a natural-born skeptic – I was simply astonished to find that on the same hill, same rate of pedal rotation, same gearing – my intolerable pain had reduced to a bearable level, and nothing I could do by way of more intense effort could produce the former acute pain. As a clinical fact, an effect of this magnitude, and so soon, was simply hard to believe. Now I was more determined than ever to stay on the cocktail.
After one year of this self-treatment, I underwent the exact same ultrasound scanning as the first year. These scans measure the speed of blood through the arteries. When you pinch a hose, the water speeds up. Similarly, when an artery is narrowed by vascular disease, the blood-flow speeds up, and the speed is expressed in the number of centimeters the blood flows per second. The result is called “Peak Systolic Velocity,” or PSV, and to my ever-hopeful but cautious delight, after one year on the Ignarro Cocktail there were some improvements (lowered blood-flow speeds) in parts of my right leg, which had the least disease. This was dismissed as an insignificant random variation by my vascular specialist and his staff. But I thought otherwise, because by this time, after a year of self-treatment, my sharp thigh pains had almost completely vanished from both legs. So I decided to stay on the Cocktail for another year.
In December of 2016, more than two years after my first baseline ultrasound, and after 24 months of daily boosting of my Nitric Oxide levels, I had my third ultrasound, and the rather astonishing results shown below popped out of the scanner. The 2016 column for each leg gives the PSV numbers for all ten sites scanned on each leg, and upon seeing them, my jaw dropped. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The medical intern who reviewed these results with me was also staring at the results, rather speechless. She couldn’t believe her eyes, either. Significantly lower PSV speeds in 17 of the 20 sites scanned in my legs, for some of them, more than 40%? Might this have resulted from a change in my blood pressure compared to the last scan? But we checked. The blood pressure was exactly the same on both scans. So she ran out of the room to get the vascular specialist. I waited, somewhat stunned. Did I dare believe that the solo experiment on which I had embarked was not just slowing, or stalling, the progress of this terrible disease, but perhaps (could it be?), it was actually reversing it? Unheard of!
My specialist appeared, with an appropriately skeptical scientist’s demeanour. Then he studied my PSV numbers, looked at the improvement in 16 of the 20 “wave-form” numbers, and then at the fact that the plaque in my aorta has almost disappeared, and said: “These numbers are significant.” He then asked more detailed questions, took notes on what I have been doing, wondered out loud what this might mean, said a solo experiment is of course inconclusive, but still … “these are great numbers.” Then he was called away to care for another patient. Meanwhile, I went home, wondering if this could be the match that would light a fuse for further research – work that could possibly alleviate the suffering of millions.
Vascular disease is due to some combination of lifestyle and genetics. I don’t know exactly what. But I will continue with this regime for another year in the hope of further reversal. I will also do my best to spread this news in the hope that others who suffer from vascular disease may benefit.
If anyone reading this has knowledge of vascular disease experts who may be able to help substantiate this experience by way of setting up a controlled experiment, please forward this story to them, and ask them to feel free to contact me if they wish.
My Vascular Ultrasounds
Blood flow is expressed in Peak Systolic Velocity (cm. per sec.). The 2016 column tells the story. I can’t seem to align the columns precisely. But you get the idea …
Right Leg Left Leg
2014 2015 2016 2014 2015 2016
________PSV_______ %/+- ________PSV_______ %/+-
common iliac prox. 136 129 148 ( +15) 127 155 135 (-13)
external iliac distal 170 176 134 (-24) 155 164 123 (-24)
common femoral 154 122 152 (+26) 118 120 80 (-33)
profund femor. prox 238 265 64 (-76) 163 160 121 (-24)
superfic. fem. origin 116 116 68 (-41) 54 65 67 (0)
” ” mid 150 109 83 (-24) 83 118 77 (-35)
” ” dist 167 138 50 (-64) 418 438 353 (-19)
popliteal prox 93 78 66 (-15) 61 84 56 (-33)
anterior tibial DP 57 86 51 (-41) 42 88 78 (-11)
posterior tibial PT 43 62 45 (-27) 33 58 28 (-52)
Overall percentage change: Right Leg: (-29.7%) Left Leg: (-24.4%)
Average Decline in PSV, Both Legs combined: (-27%)
* Aorta Scan. For 2014, the technician reported: “web-like plaque noted in distal aorta with turbulent flow.” For 2015, the same technician reported: “Unable to document previous web-like plaque.” For 2016, another technician reported: “only minor plaque”
Comment: This Table of PSV results seems to show that by the time of the 2015 scan, after a year of self-treatment, the disease was still progressing in the worst (left) leg, but was beginning to reverse in least blocked (right) leg. But … one year later, the disease seems to be reversing in both legs.
Wave Forms: The Wave Forms also improved, compared to the year prior, in 17 of the 20 sites scanned.