Before 2004, when cholesterol had not yet become a super villain in the medical community and households nation-wide, a 130-milligram LDL cholesterol level was considered healthy. However, in 2004 the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) panel advised those at risk for heart disease to attempt to reduce their LDL cholesterol to specific, very low levels of less than 100, and less than 70 for patients deemed very high risk. The latest recommendations state that cholesterol levels in the body should be as low as possible; so low in fact, that traditional cholesterol-lowering lifestyle modifications alone, such as diet and exercise, cannot possibly achieve them. What lifestyle change CAN help “at risk” individuals reach these excessively low guidelines? If the new levels cannot be attained by diet and exercise alone, the NCEP panel asserts that cholesterol-lowering drugs, particularly the so-called “statins,” should then be given to those individuals at high risk for heart disease. Since heart disease is the number one killer in this country that would include most adults – and even many children.
Fortunately, in 2006, a review in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that there is insufficient evidence to support the target numbers outlined by the panel. The authors of the review were unable to find research providing evidence that achieving a specific LDL target level was important in and of itself, and found that the studies attempting to do so suffered from major flaws. Several of the scientists who helped develop the guidelines even admitted that the scientific evidence supporting the less-than-70 recommendation was not very strong.
So how did these excessively low cholesterol guidelines come about?
Eight of the nine doctors on the panel that developed the new cholesterol guidelines had been making money from the drug companies that manufacture statin cholesterol-lowering drugs – the same drugs that the new guidelines suddenly created a huge new market for in the United States. Despite the finding that there is absolutely NO evidence to show that lowering LDL cholesterol to 100 or below is more beneficial than the former guidelines of around 130, the American Heart Association still recommends lowering LDL cholesterol levels to less than 100. Repeatedly, the standard recommendation to reach that level almost always includes one or more cholesterol-lowering drugs.
The Dangers of Cholesterol-Lowering Medications
The big question at this juncture is often the same: “Besides putting even more money in the pockets of panel doctors and big pharma corporations, why does it matter if I take statins to lower my cholesterol?”
Really the first question should be, why do you believe you NEED to lower your cholesterol? Is it because your doctor told you it was necessary? If your levels are between 100 and 200, it is unlikely that lowering them will greatly increase your health in any capacity. In fact, as we have learned throughout the progression of this series, lowering your cholesterol could actually be quite harmful to your health.
However, cholesterol levels CAN become more harmful than helpful as they approach 300, but should be lowered by way of modifications to diet and exercise rather than the addition of statins.
Bottom line: If you are concerned about your cholesterol levels, taking a drug should be your absolute last resort.
However, according to data from Medco Health Solutions Inc., more than half of insured Americans are taking drugs for chronic health conditions. And cholesterol-lowering medications are the second most common variety among this group, with nearly 15 percent of chronic medication users taking them (high blood pressure medications — another vastly over-prescribed category — were first).
Disturbingly, as written in BusinessWeek early in 2008, “Some researchers have even suggested — half-jokingly — that the medications should be put in the water supply.” Count yourself lucky that you probably do NOT need to take cholesterol-lowering medications, because these are some nasty little pills.
Statins May Be Detrimental to Your Heart, and Overall, Health
Perhaps the biggest “sham” of all is that statin drugs, touted as “preventive medicine” to protect heart health, can actually have detrimental effects on the heart. For example, a study published in the journal Atherosclerosis showed that statin use is associated with a 52 percent increased prevalence and extent of calcified coronary plaque compared to non-users. Coronary artery calcification is the hallmark of potentially lethal heart disease!
Statin drugs work by inhibiting an enzyme in the liver that is needed to manufacture cholesterol. What is so concerning about this is that when you go tinkering around with the delicate workings of the human body, you risk throwing everything off kilter.
Case in point, “statin drugs inhibit not just the production of cholesterol, but a whole family of intermediary substances, many if not all of which have important biochemical functions in their own right,” say Enig and Fallon. For starters, statin drugs deplete the body of Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which is beneficial to heart health and muscle function. Therefore, anyone taking a statin must take supplemental CoQ10 or, better, the reduced (electron rich) form called ubiquinol. Because doctors rarely inform people of this risk and advise them to take a CoQ10 supplement, this depletion leads to fatigue, muscle weakness, soreness, and eventually heart failure.
Muscle pain and weakness, a condition called rhabdomyolysis, is actually the most common side effect of statin drugs, which is thought to occur because statins activate the atrogin-1 gene, which plays a key role in muscle atrophy. Muscle pain and weakness may be an indication that your body tissues are actually breaking down — a condition that can cause kidney damage.
Statins also interfere with the mevalonate pathway, which is the central pathway for the steroid hormone production in the body. Products of this pathway that are negatively affected by statins include:
- All the sex hormones
- The dolichols, which are involved in keeping the membranes inside cells healthy
- All sterols, including cholesterol and vitamin D (which is similar to cholesterol and is produced from cholesterol in the skin)
Statin drugs have also been linked to:
- An increased risk of polyneuropathy (nerve damage that causes pain in the hands and feet and trouble walking)
- Cognitive impairment, including memory loss
- A potential increased risk of cancer
- Decreased function of the immune system
- Liver problems, including a potential increase in liver enzymes (so people taking statins must be regularly monitored for normal liver function)
And recently a possible association was found between statins and an increased risk of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Other cholesterol-lowering drugs besides statins also have side effects, most notably muscle pain and weakness.
Even more egregious, recent research shows that statins can effectively negate the benefits of exercise, which is one of the primary heart disease prevention strategies! The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, discovered that statin use led to dramatically reduced fitness benefits from exercise, in some cases actually making the volunteer LESS fit than before. The results showed that:
- On average, non-medicated participants improved their aerobic fitness by more than 10 percent after a 12-week long (five days a week) supervised exercise program. Mitochondrial content activity increased by 13 percent
- Volunteers taking 40 mg of simvastatin improved their fitness by a mere 1.5 percent on average, and some had reduced their aerobic capacity at the end of the 12-week fitness program. Mitochondrial content activity decreased by an average of 4.5 percent
Exercise induces changes in mitochondrial enzyme content and activity (which is what they tested in the above-mentioned study), which can increase your cellular energy production and in so doing decrease your risk of chronic disease. The key to understanding why statins prevent your body from reaping the normal benefits from exercise lies in understanding what these drugs do to your mitochondria—the “powerhouse” of your cells, responsible for the production of energy for all metabolic functions. A primary fuel for your mitochondria is CoQ10, further illustrating the necessity of CoQ10 supplementation while taking statins.
Statins have also been shown to increase your risk of diabetes via a number of different mechanisms, including increasing insulin resistance and raising your blood sugar. And this is only a handful of statin side effects. There are over 465 studies proving their adverse effects, which run the gamut from muscle problems and sexual dysfunction to cognitive loss and increased cancer risk.
Check back next week to read the finale of this series:
How to Lower Inflammation and Your Risk of Heart Disease, Naturally