Cholesterol. You’ve probably heard too much is bad – except for the good kind. But should you take statins to lower it? It seems there’s a new health article on this topic all the time, and the answer keeps changing. Today we’ll talk about cholesterol and heart disease, and what you may not know about this topic.
This post is one in a series of the Evolve Wellness Podcast with Dr. Bill Jensen. Check out the YouTube video below for the full episode!
Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Most people know this is the largest worldwide killer, followed closely by cancer. For decades, heart disease has been the biggest health issue, especially in the US, and we’ve been studying ways to mitigate the risks. One of these ways is the use of statins. But is this the best solution?
Google cholesterol. Everything you’ll find is going to be bad. You’ll see pictures of clogged arteries and WebMD articles about how cholesterol causes heart disease. That’s the current paradigm – we associate cholesterol with being bad for you. However, cholesterol actually has some vital functions in the body:
Tissue and cell regeneration. Our bodies are made of cells, which have a membrane, and this membrane is made of….you guessed it, cholesterol! Any tissue in your body needs pliable membranes.
On a cellular level, we need to protect the environment in the cell. Cholesterol provides a barrier that keeps what we want in the cell inside, and what we don’t want in the cell (like toxins) outside.
The ability to absorb nutrients from food. As you may know, bile is held in the gall bladder and released when we eat fat. It emulsifies fat and food so the body can use those nutrients. If you don’t have enough bile, you won’t absorb nutrients as well, so again it’s important to have enough cholesterol to produce bile.
Hormones. The top two are estrogen for women and testosterone for men. How does the body produce these? It uses cholesterol.
Lipoproteins. There are several of these: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). High-density lipoprotein (HDL). Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). Many people know LDL as “the bad cholesterol,” but it’s actually a potent anti-inflammatory in the body, so we do need it.
How Do Statins Work?
Essentially, statins inhibit an enzyme that allows every cell in your body to produce cholesterol. You can still produce a small amount, but not as much. Unfortunately, this can have side effects.
As a chiropractor, I see people come in with a variety of issues. One common complaint is headaches. This is also one of the most common side effects of statins. Why? Because, as we discussed, cholesterol is essential to the membranes of cells, and this permeability affects muscle cells. One of the most common causes of headache is tension in the muscles of the neck.
The number two side effect of statins is difficulty sleeping. Your brain has sympathetic and parasympathetic states, and the parasympathetic state enables a good night’s sleep. Statins interrupt this cycle, reducing sleep quality. This in turn lowers immunity, leaving us more vulnerable to infections from colds to Covid. Long term this also leads to more inflammation and risk of heart disease.
The number three side effect of statins is flushing of the skin. This is another imbalance of sympathetic/parasypathetic nervous system. This can lead to blood pressure fluctuations, especially with age.
Other side effects include digestive issues like nausea and vomiting, liver inflammation, pancreatic inflammation, skin issues, and sexual dysfunction or decrease in sex drive.
These side effects don’t always start immediately upon taking a statin. They may happen subtly over time and patients may not realize they’re because of the statins. People may also associate these symptoms with aging. But often when you look at when they started taking statins, that may be when they started to feel “old.”
One major things as far as muscles are concerned is myositis, or inflammation of the muscles. I see this a lot. You know the feeling you have after doing an intense workout, and you wake up the next morning sore? What if you had that level of inflammation without doing any strenuous activity? That’s myositis. Worse, this can lead to a life-threatening condition called rhabdomyolysis. This is most common in people taking multiple meds to lower cholesterol. It is also more common in women, and/or people with small body frames. People over the age of 80, those who drink too much alcohol, and those with kidney disease also raise the risk of statin side effects.
Are Statins Really Reducing Heart Disease?
There has been an overall decline in heart disease from 1968-2010. This is often attributed to statin drug use, but could also be caused by the FDA putting warning labels about heart disease on tobacco packaging. From 2010-now there has been some increase in heart disease despite there also being an increase in statin use. This may relate to an increase in pesticides and other contaminants in our food that lead to inflammation. Unfortunately, inflammation is the root cause of heart disease, and cholesterol is correlated with it because we use cholesterol to fight inflammation.
How Else Can You Lower Cholesterol Besides Statins?
You shouldn’t stop taking statins or any medication without talking to your healthcare provider first. However, some people find they can lower cholesterol simply by addressing the root cause of inflammation in the following ways:
- Stop smoking or using tobacco products if you do use them.
- Reduce alcohol use.
- Eat organic food. Yes, this is expensive, so if you can’t afford to eat organic all the time, at least make an effort to do it as much as possible to reduce pesticide exposure. Thoroughly clean fruits and vegetables before use.
- Reduce or stop eating animal proteins. These are very inflammatory, and plant-based proteins actually break down and become usable faster. Non-animal proteins also don’t contain cholesterol because plants don’t have livers.
- Consider supplementing with fish oils or omega-3’s to reduce inflammation.
- Turmeric, black pepper, and fenugreek also lower inflammation.
- Beet juice may also help as a good source of nitric oxide.
- Get plenty of exercise. It doesn’t have to be hugely strenuous. Just walking a few times a day can help.
To learn more about heart disease, cholesterol, and inflammation, watch the full podcast here.
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