I never thought that I would write specifically on this topic, but my life experiences dictate my material. Also, I embrace any opportunity to “geek out” with new research. There was A LOT of information, some conflicting and controversial, to wade through on this topic.
Obligatory disclaimer: If you are currently taking a statin drug to manage cholesterol, I am NOT telling you stop taking it. I am merely advocating an awareness of the risks of taking these drugs. It is better to be informed, so that you can ask the right questions the next time you see your doctor. Moving on…
When my mom told me that she was being tested for lupus, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis, I sprang into action, combing through research trying to understand the why behind her sudden onset of pain. A red flag for me was her long-term use of a statin drug for high cholesterol. I knew that this drug had potentially dangerous side effects, including muscular pain, and wondered if this was the underlying cause. So this was my starting point: what kinds of statin-induced pathologies are proven through research?
What I found might shock you.
As I suspected, numerous studies have found that statins cause muscular and neurological damage. This is extremely troubling, since the HEART is a MUSCLE and these drugs are supposed to prevent heart disease! Statins also deplete some of the body’s cardioprotective minerals such as zinc and selenium, as well as more complex compounds, like Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and Omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish oil). Studies have also shown that statins can increase calcification in the arteries around the heart.
Other side effects associated with statins that are supported by research include: cataracts, pancreatitis, liver damage, kidney disease, memory loss, certain types of cancer, and autoimmune responses (http://www.greenmedinfo.com/disease/statin-induced-pathologies *). Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are specific autoimmune diseases that have also been linked to statin drugs. In fact, my mom was ultimately diagnosed with Statin-Induced Lupus-like Syndrome, meaning that she had symptoms of lupus that were caused by her cholesterol medication!
A particularly alarming finding is the association between statins and type 2 diabetes, since many people who have high cholesterol also have diabetes. Studies have shown that statins increase the risk of developing diabetes, especially for post-menopausal women. This 2012 study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found a 71% increase in diabetes risk for women. After controlling for age/race/weight/BMI, the risk was still high, at 48%.
Do These Drugs Actually Prevent Heart Disease?
With such serious risks on the table, the next logical question is: do statins actually prevent heart disease? The research findings are rather underwhelming.
Generally, there are two populations taking these drugs: 1.) those considered to be at-risk but with no known heart disease; and 2.) those with a history of heart attacks/heart disease. Studies show that statins tend to be effective for people who have had a previous heart attack (#2), but not for people who have never had one (#1). A meta-analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined 11 different trials on the effectiveness of statins, involving over 65,000 patients. Researchers concluded that, “statins provided no benefit in preventing all cause mortality in the high-risk primary setting” (i.e. the drugs did not prevent death for the people in the at-risk/no heart attack history population).
When discussing the effectiveness of a drug, the Number Needed to Treat (NNT) is very important information. It refers to the number of patients that need to be treated, for a period of time, in order for ONE to benefit (compared to a control group). The ideal number is 1, meaning that everyone who takes this drug will benefit. Therefore, the higher the NNT, the less effective the treatment. There are various NNTs out there, depending on the study.
For the population that has no history of heart disease, even though they have risk factors, the lowest number that I was able to find is 60, over 5 years. This means that patients would need to take the statin for 5 years in order to have a 1 in 60 chance of avoiding a heart attack (with no distinction between fatal and non-fatal). I also found numbers of 100 and 155, while some analysts suggest that this number is over 1000 for men, and 5000 for women under the age of 50 (i). Now, for the population with a history of heart disease, the most common NNT that I found was 83 (over 5 years) for fatal heart attacks.
Another very important point to consider is that the Number Needed To Harm (NNH), is 50 for type 2 diabetes, and 10 for muscle damage. Meaning, after 5 years of taking this medication, 1/50 will develop diabetes and 1/10 will have muscle damage. Based on this data, patients are more likely to develop a serious complication than to prevent a heart attack!
Is High Cholesterol a Big Deal?
There is no question that statin drugs reduce cholesterol, but we have seen that when taking these medications, heart attacks are not overwhelmingly prevented. Does this mean that high cholesterol might not cause heart disease?
This is a complex issue. After LOTS and LOTS of reading and research, I can tell you this: Cholesterol plays a role in heart disease, but there are many factors that determine whether high cholesterol will actually cause heart disease.
When you get your cholesterol checked, you are given some numbers referring to LDL and HDL. Technically, these are “transport molecules” (lipoproteins) that move cholesterol through the body, allowing it to perform very important jobs. Our bodies need cholesterol. It is the building block of hormones, cell membranes, and brain cells. Cholesterol also aids in bile production for digestion and vitamin D synthesis.
Problems occur when the LDL doesn’t get the cholesterol into the cells and is just hanging out in the bloodstream. The longer it stays outside the cells, the more it breaks down, which isn’t a good thing. This leads to inflammation…and diabetes and metabolic syndrome make this situation worse.
Interestingly, research has repeatedly found that inflammation (measured as c-reactive protein, or CRP) is associated with heart disease. The higher this number, the higher your risk. One landmark study (AKA the JUPITER trial) demonstrated that lowering inflammation in the body is instrumental in preventing heart attacks and death.
To summarize, the key is not necessarily to lower the concentrations of lipoproteins (LDL) in our body, but to prevent the inflammation that can occur when they break down. Even though statins are known to reduce inflammation for some patients, there is a much safer way to tackle it.
What Can I Do?
It doesn’t surprise me that this rabbit hole led to the conclusion that cholesterol doesn’t entirely cause heart disease. The enemy is inflammation. It is the root of all disease, including cancer. Here is an action plan to manage your inflammation:
– Have your c-reactive protein (CRP) checked in order to assess your risk. This is a blood test that your doctor must order.
– Engage in regular exercise and manage your stress.
– all processed foods, including processed meats and vegetable oils (canola, corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, and anything listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated).
– refined carbs like sugar and flour
– foods that trigger allergic reactions and intolerances for you. This takes some detective work, but the biggest offenders are gluten, dairy, corn, soy, nuts, and eggs.
– alcohol consumption (or dramatically reduce it)
– vegetables, especially broccoli, kale, spinach, bok choy, celery, beets
– fruits, especially blueberries and other berries, tart cherries
– fatty fish, such as Wild Alaskan salmon, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, rainbow trout, tuna, Pacific halibut
– healthy fats in food form (preferred source): avocados, olives, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, unsweetened coconut, other nuts and seeds
– healthy fats in oil form: olive, coconut, avocado, palm
– spices, such as turmeric and ginger
– dark chocolate, small amounts at 70% cacao or greater (this one is for all of the chocolate lovers out there, myself included)
– bone broth (I make my own, with bones left from cooking a chicken)
In conclusion, it’s always scary to experience serious side effects from medications, and it has been astounding to hear from other people, especially women, who have suffered while taking statins. I wanted to share my investigation in hopes that others might be empowered to ask questions and advocate for their health. I personally have “high cholesterol” and needed to get to the bottom of this long-standing debate for my own sake, as well as my mom’s.
* © GreenMedInfo LLC. This work is reproduced and distributed with the permission of GreenMedInfo LLC. Want to learn more from GreenMedInfo? Sign up for the newsletter here http://www.greenmedinfo.com/greenmed/newsletter
i. Austin Publishing Group. Statins and Changing Number Needed to Treat (NNT). J Cardiovasc Disord. 2015; 2(3):. 1018. J Cardiovasc Disord – Volume 2 Issue 3 – 2015