Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, with approximately 610,000 Americans dying from it every year. It has become a popular theory that high cholesterol levels can have a negative impact on your heart health, so, in order to combat this, many people turn towards cholesterol-lowering drugs to lower their risk of heart disease.
However, it turns out that one of America’s most popular cholesterol lowering drugs, statins, are not only ineffective at reducing the risk of heart attack in certain populations, but also cause a variety of unpleasant side effects and has even been linked to cancer.
Cholesterol and the Body
Cholesterol is classified as a sterol, which is a combination of a steroid and alcohol and not technically a fat. There is a lot of confusion when people talk about “cholesterol levels” and it’s important to understand that you don’t actually have cholesterol in your blood. In order for cholesterol to be transported around the body in our blood and blood vessels, it has to be carried around by special little proteins called lipoproteins which are made in the liver. There are different types of lipoproteins that are classified according to their density. You may be familiar with the two most important lipoproteins in regards to cardiovascular disease low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Kris Kresser uses a great analogy of cars on a highway to get an understanding of how lipoproteins impact heart disease. If you imagine your bloodstream is like a highway, the lipoproteins are taxis that carry the cholesterol, triglycerides, fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants around your body to your cells and tissues. So you can think of the cholesterol and fats as passengers in the taxi’s.
- Blood = highway
- Lipoprotein particles (LDL // HDL) = Taxi
- Cholesterol + fats = passenger
Scientists used to believe that the number of passengers in the taxi (i.e. concentration of cholesterol in the LDL particle) was the driving factor in the development of heart disease. We’ve now learned with more recent studies, that it’s the number of taxi’s on the road (i.e. LDL particles) that matters most.
As with any taxi there are a limit to the number of passengers it can carry, so as the number of triglycerides in your body increases they start taking up more room in the taxi’s, and leaving less room for cholesterol passengers, forcing the liver to make more LDL particles to carry a given amount of cholesterol around the body. The more taxi’s on the road at one time means the bigger the traffic jam, and the more likely that some of them will “crash” into the fragile lining of the artery leading to inflammation and plaque formation.
The use of statins and other drugs originally became popular mainly due to the old theory that the number of passengers in the taxi’s (cholesterol concentration) needed to be reduced instead of taking taxi’s (LDL) off the road. What statins actually do is reduce your cholesterol production, thus reducing the number of passengers.
What Are Statins?
It is clear that statins are effective at reducing heart attacks and death in people with pre-existing heart disease however there is less compelling evidence for statin use in people who do not have pre-existing heart disease.
In a 5 year study conducted by Dr. David Newman researcher-physician and leading expert in health care evidence analyzed the effect of statins given to people with no known heart disease for 5 years and found the following(**):
- None were helped (life saved)
- 10% (1 in 10) were harmed by muscle damage
- 1.6% (1 in 60) were helped by preventing a heart attack
- 0.4% (1 in 268) were helped by preventing a stroke
- 1.5% (1 in 67) were harmed by developing diabetes
Other negative side effects of statins include:
- Memory loss
- High blood sugar
- Increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Statins are also associated with more serious side effects such as myositis and rhabdomyolysis, which are conditions that cause inflammation of the muscles and can lead to serious muscle damage. Rhabdomyolysis can also cause damage to the kidneys which can result in kidney failure or even death.
Several studies have also associated taking statins with a higher risk of cancer. One study published in the journal Current Oncology found that statins increased the risk of cancer in the elderly and in people with prostate or breast cancer. Researchers also found that statins caused tumor progression in people with bladder cancer.
The connection between statins and cancer is said to stem from the way that statins affect the body’s immune system. Researchers believe that, since statins increase the body’s production of T cells (white blood cells that fight off infection) it weakens other immune responses in the body, leaving it more susceptible to developing cancer.
In order to help prevent heart disease, avoid choosing foods that are low in fat, and instead choose foods that are high in anti-inflammatory properties. These include sources of omega-3 fatty acids, natural saturated fats and avoiding sources of inflammation-causing trans fat.
Foods that are high in inflammation-busting properties include:
- Flaxseed oil
- Wild salmon
- Hickory nuts
Make sure to eat all of the foods mentioned above, while avoiding these inflammation-causing ones:
- Deep-fried foods
- Pie crust
- Cake frosting
- Coffee creamer
In addition, research shows that niacin (aka Vitamin B-3) is effective in lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol. Many doctors regularly prescribe vitamin B-3 in conjunction with statins, but there is growing interest in using it as a lipid-lowering “drug” in and of itself. If you’re interested in taking vitamin B-3 medicinally for your heart health, speak with your doctor about finding a dosage plan that works for your body.
In order to avoid inflammation-causing trans fats, make sure to not eat any deep fried or heavily processed foods. Not only do these foods cause inflammation, but they boost your bad cholesterol levels as well, leading to a combination that is sure to cause heart disease.
At the end of the day, heart disease is a complex and a multifactorial process. The likelihood that you will have a heart attack depends on numerous factors, including genetics, diet, lifestyle and living environment. It’s important to work with your doctor to identify if statins are the right choice for you and take matters into your own hands when it comes to improving your diet and lifestyle habits.