Cracking the Cholesterol Caper

February 1, 2013

By Anna Varriano

February is officially ‘Heart Health Month’.  As those of you who attended my ‘The Skinny on Fats’ workshop last month know, I am acknowledging ‘Heart Health Month’ by putting together a workshop on heart health, which will cover many topics, including high blood pressure and cholesterol.  Stay tuned for details; however, as usual, space will be limited, so if this is a workshop that would be of interest to you, please call, email, or Facebook message me, and let me know if you have a preference for a week night or a Saturday day-time workshop, and I’ll try to accommodate the majority.

As ‘coincidence’ would have it, I have had a string of new clients in the past week or so who have recently been told by their medical doctors that their cholesterol numbers aren’t good. Their doctors recommended the most common conventional treatment, which is to go on a statin (cholesterol lowering) drug, such as Lipitor or Crestor.  These clients wanted to know if there is anything else they can do to improve their cholesterol numbers, other than going on a statin drug.

It is not my place to tell someone whether or not they should be on a prescription drug. I am not a medical doctor. I was not trained in prescription drugs, surgery, or the diagnosis of disease. In addition, an individual needs to feel comfortable and confident with how they choose to manage their health. What I can do, however, is share:

  1. My understanding of statin drugs based on information I have come across; and
  2. Nutritional and lifestyle changes that can positively impact cholesterol levels (and overall health).

So let’s get started!

1) Information That I Have Read Regarding Statin Drugs

Statin drugs work by blocking an enzyme/a pathway in the liver that produces cholesterol, as well as by binding more cholesterol to be eliminated via bowel movements.  Did you catch that? Our liver naturally produces cholesterol to make sure we have enough of it.  Why?  Because it is an important substance that we cannot live without! Now you may be asking yourself: If cholesterol is an important substance in the body, why would we want to lower it? It’s because the long-held theory is that cholesterol significantly raises the risk of heart disease – including heart attacks and strokes. So, you have high cholesterol, you take a statin drug, you reduce your risk of heart disease. Case closed. Or is it?

There is an emerging theory that is causing quite a bit of controversy within the medical community right now – and that theory is that cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease.

Why is it controversial? The Heart and Stroke Foundation states: “About 40% of Canadians have high blood cholesterol” and “It is estimated that as many as 10 million Canadian adults have a cholesterol level higher than the recommended target.” That’s a lot of people who may be taking a drug that isn’t addressing the cause of heart disease, and that may cause other health risks. In fact, some sources state that the manufacturers of statin drugs list more than 130 possible side effects, including muscle pain (myalgia), fatigue, forgetfulness, and liver damage.

Health Canada recently updated the labelling for commonly prescribed statin drugs to warn users that they may be at a ‘small’ increased risk of developing diabetes. (1) That’s pretty ironic since diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke (the very things you are trying to protect yourself from by taking a statin drug). Health Canada went on to say that it believes the benefits of the medication still outweigh its risks, and that doctors should carefully monitor the use of statins among those patients who have diabetes risk factors, which include high blood sugar levels, high triglyceride levels, being obese, and having high blood pressure. I wouldn’t be surprised if that includes the majority of statin drug users – and incidentally, all of those risk factors can be positively impacted by nutrition and lifestyle (but I suppose there’s not much corporate profit in that route).   Interestingly, I recently read that statin drugs are the number one profit makers for the pharmaceutical industry and that they are rapidly becoming the most prescribed drug in North America, where they are even being prescribed for use by children…as young as 8 years old!

Recall that statin drugs work by interfering with the body’s natural cholesterol-producing pathway. That isn’t the only production pathway they interfere with. It is well documented that statin drugs deplete the body’s stores of a compound called Coenzyme Q10, also known as CoQ10, or ubiquinone. CoQ10 is essential in cellular energy production, and all functions of our cells, organs, and immune system depend on this cellular energy. CoQ10 is ESPECIALLY ABUNDANT IN THE CELLS OF THE HEART, since the heart needs loads of energy to continuously pump and keep us alive. I find it ironic that statin drugs are prescribed to protect heart health, yet they deplete the heart of one of its most important requirements.

The effects of statin drugs on CoQ10 production is not a new theory; in fact, a medical doctor by the name of Julian Whitaker filed a Citizen’s Petition with the FDA in May of 2002 stating that all statin drugs must include a warning statement regarding statin-induced CoQ10 depletion, as well as the recommendation that all individuals on these drugs be advised to supplement with 100 to 200 mg of CoQ10 per day. (2) While the FDA did announce safety changes in labelling for some cholesterol-lowering drugs in February 2012 (about 10 years after the petition was filed!), it is my understanding that they did not mention or address the relationship between statin drug use and CoQ10 depletion – only the potential side effects of the drugs.

The good news is that CoQ10 depletion associated with statin drug use can be reversed by supplementation. Dosages vary, but most sources claim that levels can generally be replenished by supplementing with 100 to 200 mg per day. Note that CoQ10 production also decreases with normal aging – and many sources suggest that age-related health problems are caused or exacerbated by this decrease of CoQ10, so CoQ10 supplementation could benefit us all – especially as we get up there in years. In fact, the strongest clinical evidence for the use of CoQ10, in addition to addressing cardiovascular conditions (including high blood pressure), is in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. (3) CoQ10 supplements are widely available, including at Perfect Resonance. Look for quality brands with good bio-availability.

2) Nutritional and Lifestyle Changes that Can Positively Impact Cholesterol Levels

In terms of nutrition, I hear people say things like: “I have a cholesterol problem…

  • …so I don’t eat eggs, or red meat.”
  • …so I don’t eat butter. I’ve switched to margarine and vegetable oils.”
  • …so I use those egg whites that come in a carton for my omelettes.”
  • …and I’m praying you won’t tell me that I have to give up my cheese!” (OK – that’s just what I would say! I love cheese…made with RAW milk…especially raw sheep or goat milk!)

For those of you who attended my ‘The Skinny on Fats’ workshop, you know what I would say to the above!

If more and more research is suggesting that cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease, then what is? I believe it is the same thing that is the foundation of so many health issues – improper nutrition (due to the huge amount of misinformation and contradictory information out there on this topic) and poor lifestyle habits, which ultimately lead to body-wide inflammation.

In terms of nutrition, here are a few things you can do to reduce inflammation in the body:

  • Avoid sugar in all its forms (white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrups, etc) as well as artificial sweeteners.
  •  Avoid/limit grain products, especially processed and refined grain products. If you are going to eat grain products, it would be best if they were whole, soaked and sprouted. I would still recommend avoiding gluten-containing grains, especially wheat (and where you find wheat, you usually find sugar!).
  • Avoid/limit high starchy foods (e.g. rice, corn, potatoes).
  • Eliminate trans/hydrogenated/modified fats and oils.
  • Avoid processed/refined  oils (which means almost all of those golden liquid vegetable oils on grocery store shelves).  Stick with natural, unrefined fats and oils, such as butter, cold-expeller pressed extra-virgin olive oil, and heart-healthy coconut oil. If you think [genetically modified low erucic acid/high oleic acid] canola oil is healthy for you, I invite you to watch this video:   Crikey! How much more processed can you get? YUCK!
  • Increase sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as ground flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, cold-water fish (preferably wild or ‘line-caught’), and omega-3 supplements such as fish or krill oil. A deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids promotes inflammation.
  • Avoid packaged foods that contain fructose in any form, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS can be found in soft drinks, juices, salad dressing, condiments, marinades, sauces, baked goods (including bread), and too many other packaged foods to mention. In my opinion, HFCS is toxic (and not just because it is made with genetically modified corn). Read the labels on all packaged foods…or better yet, buy foods that doesn’t require labels!
  • Up your fibre by eating more whole foods, especially veggies.

In terms of lifestyle…get active in whatever way you enjoy!

There may be cases where statin drugs are beneficial and/or required to treat cholesterol imbalances. A minority of individuals are not able to achieve results with nutritional or lifestyle changes. Regardless of your situation, if you are on a statin drug, I encourage you to talk to your doctor or health care practitioner about supplementing with CoQ10. While supplemental CoQ10 has not been shown to reduce a statin’s cholesterol-lowering properties, or to have any adverse reaction related to statin use, it may increase the action of blood-thinning drugs. Consult your physician about potential drug interactions…and if you want to learn more about nutrition and lifestyle choices that will help to naturally support a healthy cardiovascular system, I’ll look forward to seeing you at my heart health workshop!

Take control of what you can!





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