Are Statins More Dangerous Than Cholesterol?
…The cardiologist was yelling this to me over the phone. Tom, the cardiologist’s patient, stopped taking Atorvastatin (Lipitor) because it wasn’t working. Tom initially had a stent placed and started taking Lipitor. Then he had another stent placed for plaque progression, which increased his medication. Tom even had a third stent and the medication increased again. After five stents, he came to see me. We discovered he didn’t have a primary cholesterol problem, but rather a genetic cause of inflammation in the arteries. I stopped the ineffective medication and started him on a program of repair. His cardiologist, who started him on the medication didn’t agree. He had never heard of stopping Lipitor for being ineffective and became irate.
Lipitor is one of the most prescribed medications in the world with sales over 12 billion per year.It is very effective at lowering cholesterol so it is commonly prescribed for that purpose. We are often told that cholesterol is bad, and we need to rid our bodies of this substance but, is it really?
What is cholesterol?
It would not be an overstatement to say that cholesterol is the most important chemical in the body. Some cells can get by without oxygen, at least for a short time. But no cell can live or function, or even exist, without cholesterol. No cholesterol. No cells. No life.
It’s true, without cholesterol there is no life.
- Every cell in our body in encased in oil, and cholesterol allows it to be stable.
- Cholesterol allows the cells to communicate with each other.
- Steroid hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, testosterone and estrogen are made from cholesterol.
- The myelin, made from cholesterol, around nerves is essential for brain function.
- Half of the brain is cholesterol, by numbers of molecules.
- Vitamin D is made from cholesterol.
- We need cholesterol to make bile so we can digest and absorb oils and fats.
As we decrease the cholesterol, the ability to perform these functions decreases. If we do not have enough cholesterol, then hormone levels drop, cell reproduction goes down and less deposition of myelin around nerves. All of this leads to rapid aging. Not making enough cholesterol causes us to get old fast.
How does Lipitor work?
Every cell in our body makes cholesterol. About half of the cholesterol in the body is made by our cells. The other half comes from our diet. Lipitor inhibits (meaning it is toxic to) an enzyme that is essential for making cholesterol, so it forces our cells to make less.
What are the benefits of Lipitor?
As the cells make less cholesterol, they become starved, and start bringing it in from the outside. Remember, half of the cholesterol is from our diet. Since the body is starved for cholesterol, there is no extra to deposit in the arteries, even where there is inflammation. Thus, the cells take up the extra that might be deposited in the arteries.
However, the interesting thing is that even on high doses of statins, those who have arterial disease still see progression of the disease. The arteries are getting more clogged. The PACKAGE INSERT from Lipitor states:
“LIPITOR is an HMG-CoA reductase inhibitor indicated as an adjunct therapy to diet to: Reduce the risk of non-fatal MI, fatal and non-fatal stroke, revascularization procedures, hospitalization for CHF, and angina in adult patients with CHD (1.1).
It is indicated to be used with diet and only reduces the risk of a NON-FATAL HEART ATTACK. It doesn’t reduce the risk of fatal MI (myocardial infarction). There is no evidence that it reduces stroke risk; now it seems that it makes heart failure (CHF) worse;and it doesn’t reduce angina. In other words, it is proven to do none of the things for which it is prescribed. Diet alone will reduce non-fatal, and fatal, heart attacks.
What are Lipitor risks?
We often use the word “side-effects” to speak of the toxicity of an agent. The idea is that the drug has a desired effect, and all the others are “side-effects.” In reality, all “side-effects” are toxicity.
Lipitor, as well as other statins, have toxicity associated with them. Those compromised in their ability to make energy, for example, may have muscle toxicity, causing the death of muscle cells. The enzyme blocked by Lipitor not only makes cholesterol, it is also needed for other functions of the cell. And those sensitive to its limitation will develop toxicity. 
Other side-effects, or toxicity of Lipitor noted in the package insert include:
- Liver toxicity
- Suppression of adrenal function
- Low testosterone
- Muscle cell death
- Hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain)
- Memory loss
- Fetal harm
As far as Lipitor’s association with mortality, a study of 360,000 middle-aged men over 12 years showed that there is indeed an association of cholesterol with death from heart disease, but not stroke. However, all other causes of death had an entirely different association.
Lipitor and mortality
If we look at blue line (death for any reason) on the graph, we see that as the cholesterol drops below 160 these middle-aged men are dying at a more rapid rate. If we say there is an optimal level of cholesterol, then it seems the 180-220 range would be best. Most studies agree with this graph.
If this is what the research shows, why do the doctors all say that “the lower, the better,” when it comes to cholesterol? If you narrowly focus on just heart problems it looks like it would be best to have lower cholesterol, to a point. The lowest point of cardiovascular disease is about 160, after which lower cholesterol levels are associated with increased heart disease.
Lipitor and personality changes
Statins can cause memory and thinking problems and mood and personality changes. Irritability, aggression and depression have been seen in population studies. While these symptoms are not common, they can be very troubling to the people who develop them and are seldom correctly identified as due to a statin drug.
The case of Shannon
After over twenty years of helping people get off Lipitor and other statins, I recently had one case of the opposite. Shannon came in asking how she could get off Lipitor. Her doctor said she would be on it for life, and she didn’t want to take it. Her family history wasn’t good. Many of her father’s family died in their 50s of heart disease. She had a cholesterol level over 300, and dietary measures weren’t bringing it down. I recommended she take Lipitor. The fact is, she has a genetic problem that causes her body to make too much cholesterol, called “familial hypercholesterolemia.” She needs Lipitor.
These cases are rare, about 1 in 300 people worldwide. This is where statins should show a benefit.
Too much of anything is toxic. Cholesterol, as important as it is to the body, is toxic at high levels, causing all the problems of vascular disease. However, too little cholesterol is also dangerous, and not healthy for the body, as we’ve discussed.
Lipitor is also toxic. There are risks, and benefits to using this very popular drug, but clearly the risks outweigh the benefits for 99.7 percent of the people taking it.
What you can do instead of taking Lipitor
There are several supplements that can help lower cholesterol levels. However, there is no reason to believe that they are any better than a statin, nor do we know if they’re as effective as dietary measures. For this reason, I don’t recommend supplements for cholesterol.
The purpose isn’t to get your cholesterol down, but rather to have good amounts and types of cholesterol. As we have seen, lower is not always better.
The best way to manage cholesterol is with fiber. The more fiber we eat, the more “good” cholesterol we make, and the more “bad” cholesterol is removed from the body. All the diets that have shown benefit in preventing heart disease contain lots of fiber, especially fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and seeds.
Dr. Dean Ornish has done a great deal of research to show that a vegan diet that doesn’t include processed foods (white bread or flour products, white rice, pasta, and so forth) will actually reverse heart disease.The misinterpretation of the diet was that it worked because it was low in fat, but in reality it works because it’s high in fiber. I have added fat such as avocados and coconut oil to this diet and found it to be just as effective.
Lipitor has a use. For the 1 in 300 who has familial hypercholesterolemia it can be lifesaving, but for the rest of us, it can be toxic. Those who make a lot of cholesterol because of poor diets, high in carbs, low in fiber, will not be affected either way. They may not get toxic, but neither will they have any benefit. Clearly, the best way to handle a “cholesterol problem” for most of us is a simple change in diet, not another drug.