By Martha Rosenberg
Few drug classes have been as popular as statins, which were introduced in 1987. Statins block the enzyme in liver cells (called HMG-CoA) that produces cholesterol, lowering the risk of cardiac death, myocardial infarction, and other atherosclerotic events.
The medications were considered such wonder drugs when they first appeared that U.S. health officials recommended adding them to the public water supply. Pfizer’s statin Lipitor was the best-selling drug in the history of the world.
Yet soon after Lipitor went off patent in 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) added warnings to the drug about the risk of liver damage, memory loss, confusion, Type 2 diabetes, and muscle weakness. The FDA also recommended that patients should receive liver enzyme tests before taking the drugs, not just while they’re taking them.
Does Cholesterol Really Cause Atherosclerotic Events?
While the contribution of cholesterol to heart events is backed by the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics and the American Heart Association, cholesterol “skeptics” call the connections merely a hypothesis. A 2018 article in the journal Nutrients, “Inflammation, not Cholesterol, Is a Cause of Chronic Disease,” expounds on the theory.
“The reduction of dietary or serum cholesterol” isn’t behind heart events but, rather, they’re caused by “inflammation induced by several factors, such as platelet-activating factor (PAF), that leads to the onset of cardiovascular diseases (CVD).” PAF can be reduced by mediating diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices, according to the authors.
And research in the journal Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology states that “the epidemic of heart failure and atherosclerosis that plagues the modern world may paradoxically be aggravated by the pervasive use of statin drugs.”Cynics might say this isn’t the first time that a drug has been overhyped as safe until its patent ran out whereupon more skeptical scientific reports surfaced.
Diabetes and Cholesterol
An Ohio State University study that looked at the health records of 4,683 men and women found that those who were prescribed cholesterol-lowering statins had at least double the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Patients that took the drugs for more than two years had more than three times the risk.
“The fact that increased duration of statin use was associated with an increased risk of diabetes—something we call a dose-dependent relationship—makes us think that this is likely a causal relationship,” lead researcher Victoria Zigmont said in a statement released by the university.
In an interview with The Epoch Times, Irene Campbell-Taylor, a clinical neuroscientist said, “There are scores of articles citing various levels of elevation of blood glucose in persons using statins,” yet the rises in blood glucose and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes are downplayed.
In fact, the American Diabetes Association includes the use of statins in the treatment of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, Campbell-Taylor noted.
“In the few studies of use of statins by persons with type 1 diabetes, it has been found that statins are independently associated with impaired glycemic control although a causal relationship cannot be absolutely determined. It is suggested that this apparent relationship may indicate a need to revisit the dose of insulin when starting statin treatment. Lacking factual information one has to wonder how the average patient is to adjust insulin dosage as well,” she wrote, pointing to the additional complexities of Type 1 diabetes in relation to diet, exercise, and weight.
“The question remains: With such lack of detailed information but acknowledgement of increase in blood glucose, why would a competent patient choose to take medications, control weight and diet, manage insulin therapy, etc., yet still consent to using a drug admitted to be likely to undo all of the complex measures taken to reduce the amount of glucose in the bloodstream?”
Memory, Mood, and Mental Wellness
It’s documented in the scientific literature that statins can cause severe memory loss in users, as well as depression. The pills are also linked to suicide, according to a study published in Crisis, the journal of the International Association for Suicide Prevention. According to a Psychology Today article by psychiatrist Emily Deans, “many studies over decades have (for the most part) consistently linked low total serum cholesterol with suicide, violence, and depression.” Cholesterol clearly affects mental health, and it may have risks, the research and experts caution.
“Total cholesterol levels below 160, and especially below 130, correlate with a higher risk of mental problems,” Deans wrote.
In a separate article, she lists several studies linking low serum to mental conditions ranging from violence to antisocial behavior to suicide, suicidal tendencies, parasuicide, and other mood, behavior, and personality changes.
“And despite the blood-brain barrier and the little movement of cholesterol from the blood into the brain, brain and serum cholesterol do tend to go up and down at the same time. … Cholesterol has been found to be lower during a manic episode in bipolar disorder, and tends to pop up again when the episode gets better,” Deans wrote.
The race to the cholesterol “bottom” is concerning, she wrote.
“The human brain needs a lot of cholesterol to wrap around nerves, to serve as components of cell membranes, and to aid in the communication between neurons. While cardiologists have been racing to lower serum cholesterol more and more (and drug companies keep coming up with fancy new cholesterol-lowering drugs), the importance of cholesterol in the brain relative to cholesterol and heart health has been mostly ignored.”
Studies consistently link low total serum cholesterol with suicide.
“Don’t take cholesterol levels into the basement without a good reason, and not without thinking about some possible consequences for our cholesterol-loving brains.”
Natural Statin Alternatives
According to the British Heart Foundation, natural alternatives to statins exist and can be pursued.
A fiber found in oats called beta-glucan can help lower cholesterol levels.
Fermented red rice yeast can operate similarly to a statin but may be safer.
Plant sterols such as fortified sunflower spreads and yogurt drinks may lower cholesterol (although not the risk of heart attack or stroke).
Niacin, the B vitamin, can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, although not necessarily the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Cholestyramine and other bile acid-binding resins—relatively old drugs that were used before statins—may still be useful. They’re still used with the warning that they may cause gastrointestinal side effects or vitamin deficiencies if used long term.
Policosanol, extracted from sugar cane wax, has been reported to lower cholesterol and improve various medical conditions.
Fibrates, a class of amphipathic carboxylic acids and esters derived from fibric acid, can reduce cholesterol.
Of course, when it comes to pretty much any chronic condition, lifestyle factors are front and center. Things such as sleeping well, eating well, and staying physically active provide essential “remedies” to most conditions, as well as managing stress and maintaining meaningful social connections.