Statins – Are they solving the problem or making it worse?
September 14, 2017 / Posted by Dr. Virender Sodhi, MD (Ayurveda), ND
A billion-dollar worth of statin drugs are sold annually as cholesterol-lowering medications. Statins work by inhibiting cholesterol-producing enzymes in the liver. Statin drugs like Lipitor, Zocor, and Crestor are prescribed like candy in the United States. According to a 2011 report, more than 32 million Americans were on statin medications. Research indicates that 50% of the men ages 65-74 and almost 40% of the women above age 75 are put on a statin drug. A conventional physician will tell you that statins will lower your cholesterol as well as decrease the risk of heart attack. But is that true?
Recently, scientists are beginning to question the research on the beneficial effects of statin drugs in heart disease. Yes, the statin drugs lower LDL cholesterol! However, can we lower the mortality of heart disease with statin drugs? In the long run, are statin drugs safe? Are there any long-term side effects of statin drugs? According to Dr. David Brownstein, a holistic doctor who wrote the book The Statin Disaster, statins decrease the risk of a heart attack in about 1% of its consumers. Surprisingly, statin drugs are not very efficacious, and they fail almost 99% of the patients who consume this class of medications (Brownstein, 2017).
Statin medications might be ruining our health more. It is important to recognize that statins come with a long list of serious side effects. Some of these include: diabetes, ALS, cancer, breast cancer, congestive heart failure, neuropathy, kidney and liver damage, memory issues, thyroid disorders, and muscle aches and pains. One might even argue that they should be taken off of the market, because they are not doing their job and come with dangerous side effects. Even in my clinical practice, I have seen that there are people out there who are on statin drugs for more than a decade and may have a lower cholesterol, but many other diseases. If statins have such serious side effects and are a big failure overall, why should we take them? Is there a healthier alternative to lowering cholesterol without statins? Let’s look at some published research on statins and discuss this matter further.
Statins and Coronary Artery Calcification
If you go to a cardiologist, he or she might request a coronary artery calcium score to determine the amount of calcium deposited in the coronary arteries, which is performed using a computerized tomography or a CT scan. This test detects coronary calcification in patients from atherosclerosis prior to the appearance of symptoms. Atherosclerosis leads to hardening and narrowing of the arteries, causing blocked arteries. In turn, this can trigger a heart attack or stroke. A high coronary artery calcium score generally translates into a higher chance of a cardiovascular event. In my clinic, I have seen patients who passed the treadmill test with flying colors, but when I ordered calcium scoring, they showed atherosclerosis. Angiogram showed extensive blockage in almost all the major blood vessels supplying heart muscle. Calcium scoring is a sensitive test for artherosclerotic changes in heart.
A five-year study published in 2016 looked at the effect of statins on the development of coronary artery calcification. Participants in the study were divided into two groups: 1.) On statin medication; 2.) Not on statin medication. They found out that those who took statin medication for five years as compared to those who did not take statin medication had a “two-fold increase in coronary artery calcification progression” (Dykun, et al., 2016). In other words, statins made the calcification of coronary arteries much worse. Although statins are supposed to decrease the risk of a heart attack, researchers found that the opposite is true.
Nevertheless, although statins promote coronary calcification, could that be advantageous? This is, of course, a controversial question. A 2015 report comprised 1545 subjects who were put on high doses of statins, 1726 subjects who were put on low doses of statins, and 224 subjects who received no statins. All subjects were patients of coronary artery disease. The researchers looked at the effect of statins on coronary atheroma burden and plaque calcification. A coronary atheroma refers to the accumulation of degenerative material in the coronary artery wall that damages the heart. The high-dose statin group experienced a decline in percent atheroma volume by 0.6%. In low-dose statin group, the atheroma volume increased by 0.8%. In no-statin group, the atheroma volume increased by 1% (Puri, et al., 2015). Based on this assessment, the statins might be considered beneficial for coronary artery disease patients.
However, there was an increase in coronary calcification in all three groups. There was a greater increase in coronary calcium in low-dose and high-dose statin groups as compared to no-statin group. There was more calcification in high-dose statin group as compared to low-dose statin group. A progression in the calcification of coronary artery was linked to the increased use of statins.
A decrease in coronary atheroma and an increase in coronary calcium in the 2015 study implies that the link between statins and coronary calcification is perhaps not well comprehended. Although patients of coronary artery disease have more calcium in their arteries when treated more rigorously with statins, is there a possibility that a denser and more stable plaque be linked to lower risks of cardiovascular events? It is also probable that the coronary artery calcification score is not valid once treatment with statins has begun. If this is the case, statins lower plaque volume which is heart-protective, but again, this conclusion conflicts with the resulting progression of coronary artery calcification due to statin use. Further research might be required to understand the association between statin use and coronary artery calcification, and their impact on the incidence of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks.
A Study on Statins and Type 2 Diabetes
A total of 8749 non-diabetic men (between ages 45 and 73) participated in a study in Finland over a time period of almost six years. Out of 8749, 2142 subjects were on statin treatment. The researchers found that statins increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 50% (Cederberg, et al., 2015).
Over the course of the study, 625 men were newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Those treated with statins were 46% more likely to become diabetic than those not treated with statins. Statin therapy also worsened hypoglycemia. A higher dosage of statins (Zocor and Lipitor) increased the risk of diabetes. Statins lowered insulin sensitivity by 24% and insulin secretion by 12%. It was observed that the higher the dosages of statins, the worse the capacity of the body to use and make insulin. Out of those on statins, 29% of the subjects took Zocor and 53% took Lipitor. Specifically, a high dosage of Zocor increased the risk of diabetes by 44% while a low dosage of Zocor increased the same risk by 28%. A high dosage of Lipitor was associated with a 37% increased risk of diabetes. (Cederberg, et al., 2015). Based on these findings, one might wonder whether it is worth the risk to take statins to lower cholesterol. Are statins solving the problem or making it worse?
Cholesterol has been given a very bad name and reputation. According to current understanding, cholesterol leads to cardiovascular disease. If that is true, then our body should not make 3000 mg of cholesterol every day. Cholesterol is actually very important. Ayurvedic medicine sees cholesterol as vital to the healthy function of the cells in our body. Why? Because cholesterol is the building block of all our hormones. Cholesterol is a precursor to the formation of hormones such as cortisol. Any hormone in your body, whether it is testosterone, estrogen, or progesterone, starts as a cholesterol molecule. Therefore, you do need healthy cholesterol in your diet.
The best way to have a healthy cholesterol is to eat healthy fats. Many people who are put on statins have lower levels of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E, and K) and CoQ10. These deficiencies are one reason you increase the risk of heart attack and stroke with statins, in my opinion. I have noticed in my clinical practice that ghee increases HDL, the good cholesterol. Ghee is rich in fat-soluble vitamins and enhances assimilation of nutrients in the body. I recommend my patients to eat one to three tablespoons of a variety of good quality oils such as ghee, olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, mustard oil, walnut oil and macadamia oil.
My Recommendations for Combating High Cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, I personally do not recommend that you take a prescription statin drug. Use natural Ayurvedic medicines for treatment of high cholesterol instead of statins. One of my favorite Ayurvedic herbs for cholesterol balance is Guggal (Commiphora mukul). Studies in animals and humans demonstrate that it lowers LDL cholesterol and increases HDL cholesterol levels. In a double-blind trial with Guggal, cholesterol levels dropped 14% to 27% in a four to twelve weeks period (Murray, 2008). Guggal works by stimulating the liver metabolism of LDL cholesterol. Guggal also prevents atherosclerosis, acts as a heart antioxidant, enhances the metabolism of heart, and has anti-inflammatory properties. Guggal works and minus the adverse effects.
You have to work on your dietary regimen and have an exercise plan. Eliminate red meat from your diet. If you are a non-vegetarian, eat fish, chicken breast, or seafood no more than twice a week. Consume a variety of handfuls of nuts and seeds that are not salty or roasted. Eat two to three servings of fruits daily. Eat more vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, chard, mustard, and kale. If you are eating sautéd vegetables, cook the vegetables first and add oil at the end. Add cholesterol balancing spices to your foods such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, pepper, ginger, and fenugreek. Eat 2-3 servings of beans per day. Beans naturally lower cholesterol. Eat a variety of nutritious grains such as oats, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and millet. Walk daily, practice yoga, pranayama, and meditation. If you follow these simple guidelines, you can prevent having unhealthy cholesterol levels in first place, and you will be healthy.
- Brownstein, D. (2017, September 6). Dr. Brownstein's Blog: Statins Increase the Progression of Coronary Artery Calcification. Retrieved from Dr. Brownstein's Holistic Medicine:
- Cederberg, H., Stancakova, A., Yaluri, N., Modi, S., Kuusisto, J., & Laakso, M. (2015, May). Increased risk of diabetes with statin treatment is associated with impaired insulin sensitivity and insulin secretion: a 6 year follow-up study of the METSIM cohort. Diabetologia, 58(5), 1109-1117.
- Dykun, I., Lehmann, N., Kalsch, H., Mohlenkamp, S., Moebus, S., Budde, T., … Mahabadi, A. A. (2016, November 8). Statin Medication Enhances Progression of Coronary Artery Calcification: The Heinz Nixdorf Recall Study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 68(19), 2123-2125.
- Murray, M. (2008). The Pill Book Guide to Natural Medicines: Vitamins, Minerals, Nutritional Supplements, Herbs, and Other Natural Products.
- Puri, R., Nicholis, S. J., Shao, M., Kataoka, Y., Uno, K., Kapadia, S. R., … Nissen, S. E. (2015). Impact of Statins on Serial Coronary Calcification During Atheroma Progression and Regression. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 65(13).