Author: Mark Hyman M.D.
We have all been led to believe that cholesterol is bad and that lowering it is good. Because of extensive pharmaceutical marketing to both doctors and patients we think that using statin drugs is proven to work to lower the risk of heart attacks and death.
But on what scientific evidence is this based? What does that evidence really show?
Roger Williams once said something that is very applicable to how we commonly view the benefits of statins: "There are liars, damn liars, and statisticians."
We see prominent ads on television and in medical journals — things like 36 percent reduction in risk of having a heart attack. But we don't look at the fine print. What does that REALLY mean and how does it affect decisions about who should really be using these drugs? Before I explain that, here are some thought-provoking findings to ponder.
So for whom do the statin drugs work anyway? They work for people who have already had heart attacks to prevent more heart attacks or death. And they work slightly for middle-aged men who have many risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes.
So why did the 2004 National Cholesterol Education Program guidelines expand the previous guidelines to recommend that more people take statins (from 13 million to 40 million) and that people who don't have heart disease should take them to prevent heart disease? Could it have been that 8 of the 9 experts on the panel who developed these guidelines had financial ties to the drug industry? Thirty-four other non-industry affiliated experts sent a petition to protest the recommendations to the National Institutes of Health saying the evidence was weak. It was like having a fox guard the chicken coop.
It's all in the spin. The spin of the statistics and numbers. And it's easy to get confused. Let me try to clear things up.
When you look under the hood of the research data you find that the touted "36% reduction" means a reduction of the number of people getting heart attacks or death from 3 percent to 2 percent (or about 30-40 percent).
And these data also show that treatment only really works if you have heart disease already. In those who DON'T have documented heart disease, there is no benefit.
In those at high risk for heart disease, about 50 people would need to be treated for 5 years to reduce one cardiovascular event. Just to put that in perspective: If a drug works, it has a very low NTT (number needed to treat). For example, if you have a urine infection and take an antibiotic, you will get nearly a 100 percent benefit. The number needed to treat is "1." So if you have an NTT of 50, like statins do for preventing heart disease in 75 percent of the people who take them, it is basically a crap shoot.
Yet at a cost of over $28 billion a year, 75 percent of all statin prescriptions are for exactly this type of unproven primary prevention. Simply applying the science over 10 years would save over $200 billion. This is just one example of reimbursed but unproven care.We need not only to prevent disease but also prevent the wrong type of care.
If these medications were without side effects, then you may be able to justify the risk — but they cause muscle damage, sexual dysfunction, liver and nerve damage, and other problems in 10-15 percent of patients who take them. Certainly not a free ride.
So if lowering cholesterol is not the great panacea that we thought, how do we treat heart disease, and how do we get the right kind of cholesterol? High HDL, low LDL and low triglycerides have cholesterol particles that are large, light, and fluffy rather than small, dense, and hard, which is the type that actually causes heart disease and plaque build up.
We know what causes the damaging small cholesterol particles. And it isn't fat in the diet. It is sugar. Sugar in any form or refined carbohydrates (white food) drives the good cholesterol down, causes triglycerides to go up, creates small damaging cholesterol particles, and causes metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes. That is the true cause of most heart attacks, NOT LDL cholesterol.
One of the reasons we don't hear about this is because there is no good drug to raise HDL. Statin drugs lower LDL — and billions are spent advertising them, even though they are the wrong treatment.
If you're like most of the patients I see in my practice, you're convinced that cholesterol is the evil that causes heart disease. You may hope that if you monitor your cholesterol levels and avoid the foods that are purported to raise cholesterol, you'll be safe from America's number-one killer.
We are all terrified of cholesterol because for years well-meaning doctors, echoed by the media, have emphasized what they long believed is the intimate link between cholesterol and death by heart disease. If only it were so simple!
The truth is much more complex. Cholesterol is only one factor of many — and not even the most important — that contribute to your risk of getting heart disease.
First of all, let's take a look at what cholesterol actually is. It's a fatty substance produced by the liver that is used to help perform thousands of bodily functions. The body uses it to help build your cell membranes, the covering of your nerve sheaths, and much of your brain. It's a key building block for our hormone production, and without it you would not be able to maintain adequate levels of testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and cortisol.
So if you think cholesterol is the enemy, think again. Without cholesterol, you would die.
In fact, people with the lowest cholesterol as they age are at the highest risk of death. Under certain circumstances, higher cholesterol can actually help to increase life span.
To help clear the confusion, I will review many of the cholesterol myths our culture labors under and explain what the real factors are that lead to cardiovascular disease.
One of the biggest cholesterol myths out there has to do with dietary fat. Although most of us have been taught that a high-fat diet causes cholesterol problems, this isn't entirely true. Here's why: The type of fat that you eat is more important than the amount of fat. Trans fats or hydrogenated fats and saturated fats promote abnormal cholesterol, whereas omega-3 fats and monounsaturated fats actually improve the type and quantity of the cholesterol your body produces.
In reality, the biggest source of abnormal cholesterol is not fat at all — it's sugar. The sugar you consume converts to fat in your body. And the worst culprit of all is high fructose corn syrup.
Consumption of high fructose corn syrup, which is present in sodas, many juices, and most processed foods, is the primary nutritional cause of most of the cholesterol issues we doctors see in our patients.
So the real concern isn't the amount of cholesterol you have, but the type of fats and sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet that leads to abnormal cholesterol production.
Of course, many health-conscious people today know that total cholesterol is not as critical as the following:
Many are also aware that there are different sizes of cholesterol particles. There are small and large particles of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. The most dangerous are the small, dense particles that act like BB pellets, easily penetrating your arteries. Large, fluffy cholesterol particles are practically harmless — even if your total cholesterol is high. They function like beach balls and bounce off the arteries, causing no harm.
Another concern is whether or not your cholesterol is rancid. If so, the risk of arterial plaque is real.
Rancid or oxidized cholesterol results from oxidative stress and free radicals, which trigger a vicious cycle of inflammation and fat or plaque deposition under the artery walls. That is the real danger: When small dense LDL particles are oxidized they become dangerous and start the build up of plaque or cholesterol deposits in your arteries.
Now that we've explored when and how cholesterol becomes more problematic, let's take a look at other factors that play a more significant role in cardiovascular disease.
First of all, cardiovascular illness results when key bodily functions go awry, causing inflammation [vii], imbalances in blood sugar and insulin, and oxidative stress.
To control these key biological functions and keep them in balance, you need to look at your overall health as well as your genetic predispositions, as these underlie the types of diseases you're most likely to develop. It is the interaction of your genes, lifestyle, and environment that ultimately determines your risks -- and the outcome of your life.
This is the science of nutrigenomics, or how food acts as information to stall or totally prevent some predisposed disease risks by turning on the right gene messages with our diet and lifestyle choices. That means some of the factors that unbalance bodily health are under your control or could be.
These include diet, nutritional status, stress levels, and activity levels. Key tests can reveal problems with a person's blood sugar and insulin, inflammation level, level of folic acid, clotting factors, hormones, and other bodily systems that affect your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Particularly important are the causes of inflammation, which are many, and need to be assessed. Inflammation can arise from poor diet (too much sugar and trans and saturated fats), a sedentary lifestyle, stress, autoimmune disease, food allergies, hidden infections such as gum disease, and even toxins such as mercury. All of these causal factors need to be considered anytime there is inflammation.
Combined together, all of these factors determine your risk of heart disease. And I recommend that people undergo a comprehensive medical evaluation to see what their risk really is.
There's no doubt about it, inflammation is a key contributor to heart disease. A major study done at Harvard found that people with high levels of a marker called C-reactive protein (CRP) had higher risks of heart disease than people with high cholesterol. Normal cholesterol levels were NOT protective to those with high CRP. The risks were greatest for those with high levels of both CRP and cholesterol.
Another predisposing factor to heart disease is insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, which leads to an imbalance in the blood sugar and high levels of insulin. This may affect as many as half of Americans over age 65. Many younger people also have this condition, which is sometimes called pre-diabetes.
Although modern medicine sometimes loses sight of the interconnectedness of all our bodily systems, blood sugar imbalances like these impact your cholesterol levels too. If you have any of these conditions, they will cause your good cholesterol to go down, while your triglycerides rise, which further increases inflammation and oxidative stress. All of these fluctuations contribute to blood thickening, clotting, and other malfunctions — leading to cardiovascular disease.
What's more, elevated levels of a substance called homocysteine (which is related to your body's levels of folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12) appears to correlate to cardiovascular illness. Although this is still somewhat controversial, I often see this inter-relationship in my practice. While genes may play a part, tests done as part of a comprehensive evaluation of cardiac risk can easily ascertain this factor. Where problematic levels occur, they can be easily addressed by adequate folic acid intake, along with vitamins B6 and B12.
Heart disease is not only about cholesterol. It is important to look at many factors that contribute to your overall risk. And it seems that insulin and blood sugar imbalances, and inflammation, are proving to be more of a risk than cholesterol.
If you want to test your overall risk, you can consider asking your doctor to perform the following tests:
Next week I will review how to lower your risk of heart disease and fix your cholesterol. We'll do this not by lowering the LDL, but by getting more light and fluffy LDL particles, which are protective, and more HDL cholesterol, which is THE most important cholesterol.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, M.D.