Get Well Wednesday: Dr. Gary Gibbons Answers Your Heart Health Questions


drgarygibbonsGary H. Gibbons, M.D., is Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he oversees the third largest institute, with an annual budget of approximately $3 billion and nearly 1,000 employees.

Dr. Gibbons has made many scientific contributions and received several patents for innovations in the fields of vascular biology, genomic medicine, and the pathogenesis of vascular diseases. His research focuses on investigating the relationships between clinical phenotypes, behavior, molecular interactions, and social determinants on gene expression and their contribution to cardiovascular disease.

Prior to his current position, Dr. Gibbons was a member of the faculty at Stanford University from 1990-1996 and Harvard Medical School from 1996-1999. He joined Morehouse School of Medicine in 1999, where he served as the founding director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute, Chair of the Department of Physiology, and Professor of Physiology and Medicine.

Dr. Gibbons is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Faculty Development Awardee, a Pew Foundation Biomedical Scholar, and an Established Investigator of the American Heart Association.

Dr. Gibbons answers Your heart health questions below:

I am a vegetarian. What can I do / eat to reduce my HDL?

Knowing your cholesterol levels is a good first step in becoming and staying heart healthy. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein and it is actually healthy; that is why it’s called the “good” cholesterol. So, you do not want to reduce HDL, as high levels of it have been shown to reduce heart disease. However, you do want to reduce the low-density lipoprotein (LDL), known as the “bad” cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease.

Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is an important part of “Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes” (TLC) we recommend for getting a healthy cholesterol profile (that is, a high HDL and low LDL). A TLC diet includes at least five servings of fresh or frozen (avoid canned products with added salt or sugar) fruits and vegetables every day.

Whole grains such as oats and barley, and small servings of nuts also help with getting a healthy cholesterol profile. Even though a vegetarian diet eliminates animal based and sometimes also full-fat dairy products as a source of saturated fat, some vegetable-based oils such as coconut and palm oils have saturated fat.

So choosing heart-healthy oils such as olive, canola, and safflower oils would help with lowering cholesterol. In addition to maintaining a healthy diet, increasing your physical activity through exercise and active living can also help improve your cholesterol profile.

I wanna know what diseases are white people more susceptible to? It’s starting to sound real bad to be Black.

We know that white people are at higher risk of having heart attacks overall, but they tend to survive the heart attack more often than Black people do. We also know that Vlack people tend to have more risk factors for heart disease such as obesity, low physical activity, and high blood pressure, all of which can increase the risk for heart disease.

But the good news is that many of these risk factors can be reduced through behavioral changes and in some cases, we have effective treatments. Lifestyle changes such as healthier eating and exercising, and, if needed, consistent use of medications to reduce blood pressure, control blood sugar, and improve cholesterol profile can reduce the risk for heart disease for everyone.

If you’re walking fast when you get a burning sensation in your chest, is that a sign of clogged arteries? I had a heart attack and had to have stents put in.

A burning sensation in the chest, particularly during exercise, could very well be a sign of “clogged arteries” in the heart, also known as coronary artery disease. Other symptoms could be neck, jaw or shoulder pain, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness.

But these symptoms can be present in other serious and not-so-serious conditions, and so it is important to see your healthcare provider to help sort everything out. Also, sometimes people in the early stages of heart disease do not have any symptoms at all! That is why it is important to focus on healthy lifestyle changes that can slow down the progression of heart disease.

My cousin is 4′ 9, weighs 98 pounds, has high blood pressure and has had a stroke. She’s not obese!

We are sorry to hear that your cousin has had a stroke and hope she is on the way to recovery. You mentioned that your cousin has high blood pressure: That is one of the strongest risk factors for a stroke. Obesity is just one of many risk factors for high blood pressure—genetics/family history, other lifestyle factors such as high salt intake, low physical activity, and high stress can also contribute to high blood pressure.

Can the doctor explain SVT?

Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) is a type of abnormal heart rhythm (‘arrhythmia”) characterized by abnormally fast heart rhythm arising from improper electrical activity in certain parts of the heart. Atrial fibrillation is a common type of serious arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation involves a very fast and irregular contraction of the atria that affects the way the heart beats and pumps blood in the heart.

Other types of SVT are atrial flutter, paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT), and Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Atrial flutters are similar to atrial fibrillation. However, the heart’s electrical signals spread through the atria in a fast and regular—instead of irregular—rhythm. PSVT is a very fast heart rate that begins and ends suddenly, it may cause extra heartbeats.

Wolff-Parkinson-White is a life-threatening condition that causes the heart’s ventricles to beat very fast. Symptoms may include palpitations, feeling faint, sweating, shortness of breath, or chest pain. Specific treatments depend on the type of SVT. They can include medications, medical procedures, or surgery.

My wife falls asleep a lot – what is this a sign of or what might cause this?

There are many reasons someone may fall asleep a lot, so it would be best to discuss this with her health care provider. One condition that contributes to heart disease, but often goes unrecognized, is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea (AP-ne-ah) is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. People with this condition may be told that they stop breathing and/or snore loudly, and they may often be sleepy during the day due to poor sleep quality at night. Sleep apnea can be seen in anyone, but it is more common in people who are obese.

What is a healthy weight and healthy numbers for a 56-year-old African-American woman who is 5’9.

A healthy weight for a woman who is 5’9 (69 inches) is somewhere between 126-169 pounds.

My boyfriend has hypertension. He refuses to take the medicine, complaining about having problems maintaining an erection. Is there something he can do about that?

Continued high blood pressure also contributes to erectile dysfunction. Untreated high blood pressure contributes to damage to the blood vessels, including the ones needed to achieve an erection!

Furthermore, untreated high blood pressure may lead to heart attack or stroke which may also impact a healthy sex life. Your boyfriend should talk with his health care provider about adjusting his medication regimen for high blood pressure treatment as well as the available medications and treatments for erectile dysfunction.

Are there studies available that show the impact of cigarette smoking and AOD use upon heart health?

Yes, there are many, MANY studies showing that cigarette smoking and use of alcohol and other drugs are harmful to the heart. We recommend that people never start smoking cigarettes [and marijuana] and, if they did, quit smoking, limit alcohol to 1 drink per day for women, and 2 drinks per day for men, and avoid other drugs such as cocaine and heroin due to their long-term effects on the heart.

I need a list of heart healthy snacks as well as foods.

We are always happy to share this kind of information! NHLBI has developed the DASH Diet, which has been recognized as the best overall diet for seven years in a row and it is great for high blood pressure and for heart healthy eating. You will find an entire plan here, with many recipes:

When I eat a bacon cheeseburger, Polish sausage, ribs, baked chicken, or anything with a lot of cholesterol – during and after the meal my heart actually hurts! What is actually happening here? 

Because the nerves that connect your stomach to your brain and connect your heart to your brain run side by side, sometimes it is hard for the brain to tell where chest and belly discomfort is coming from.

Eating foods high in saturated fat such as the ones you listed may certainly contribute to increasing your unhealthy cholesterol levels. But they may also cause indigestion! Listen to your body and reduce your consumption of these items for both your heart and stomach health.


Ideal blood pressure is 120/80 or less.

Total cholesterol of 200 mg/dL or lower.

HDL (“good” cholesterol) of 50 mg/dL or higher, if you’re a woman, or 40 mg/dL or higher if you’re a man.

Optimal LDL is 100 or lower.

If you have other major risk factors, like pre-existing cardiovascular disease or diabetes, your doctor may want your LDL closer to 70.

Triglycerides of less than 150 mg/dL.

If you have type 2 diabetes, there are two other numbers you need to watch: your blood sugar and your hemoglobin A1c levels.

  • A normal fasting blood sugar is less than 100 mg/dL.
  • Prediabetes is a fasting blood sugar of 100 to 125 mg/dL or an A1c of 5.7%-6.4%
  • You may have diabetes if your fasting blood sugar is 126 mg/dL or greater or your A1c level is 6.5% or higher – and you’ve gotten these results two or more times

PHOTO: Dr. Gibbons courtesy

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