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Ask the Naturopathic Doctor

The Cholesterol Question

Is this naturally occurring fat really as bad as we’ve been led to believe? The answer may surprise you

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Q: It seems like so many people over 40, or sometimes even younger, are taking statin drugs. What is that all about? Will they make me healthier?

While pharmaceuticals can be life-saving, they rarely promote health. In emergency situations, prescription medication can save lives, but because they are powerful and change your body’s physiology (meaning the way the systems work together), they eventually create unwanted side effects, which often leads to prescribing more drugs, and slowly but surely weakening our innate health.

I’m grateful for emergency medicine, which plays an important role in modern society. But we seem to have lost track of what it takes to actually maintain health—or to promote a return to health if we have neglected our own self-healing potential. It’s exciting to follow the health news where “lifestyle” choices are trending, but it’s kind of silly that this is framed as a new concept that needs more “studies.” We really don’t need studies to prove that getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and making good food choices are the foundations for good health. That’s just common sense.

Our consumer society has been brainwashed into thinking we can eat and drink whatever we want, and later take a pill for the bellyaches, heartburn, constipation, poor sleep, headaches, and other resulting issues. Now that is certainly not common sense.

The Problem With Statins

The reason statins are one of the most prescribed categories of drugs has an interesting history. In the 1950s, in a little town in Massachusetts called Framingham, a physician-researcher thought he saw a trend of folks with higher total cholesterol levels having more cardiovascular disease. He set up a clinical trial and followed people with higher levels of cholesterol against otherwise matched controls with lower levels of cholesterol. His data barely reached statistical significance, but he was able to show a trend correlating higher cholesterol with more cardiovascular disease.

Related: 9 Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol

But correlation is definitely not causation. In fact, about 20 years ago, the original data was re-analyzed with a much more sophisticated tool than was available in the 1950s, and the correspondence of cholesterol levels with cardiovascular disease no longer achieved statistical significance. This is a little-known fact that has been conveniently buried by the drug manufacturers—for easily understood reasons. Based in large part on the erroneous conclusions of the original study, Lipitor, an early statin, became the first “blockbuster” drug that helped start a whole new era of publicly traded pharmaceutical companies with huge profit margins and unimaginable CEO compensation.

The Truth About Cholesterol

Cholesterol is the most important natural fat in the body. Your brain is largely made of cholesterol, which is why statins are affiliated with cognitive decline and memory loss. (Check out astronaut Duane Graveline’s book Lipitor: Thief of Memory.)

Besides allowing for nervous system repair, cholesterol is the precursor to all steroidal hormones (progesterone, testosterone, estrogen, cortisol). Your body cannot build testosterone (or any other steroidal hormone for that matter) without cholesterol. It’s also crucial for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.

There are two major sources of cholesterol: Your liver makes exactly the correct amount of cholesterol your body needs to build hormones, keep the nervous system intact, and perform cell repair. You can also ingest cholesterol from animal foods such as meat, dairy, and eggs. But eggs also contain high amounts of lecithin, which emulsifies the cholesterol and cancels out any possibility of excess buildup.

What about the so-called “bad” LDL cholesterol? It isn’t really bad, it just delivers cholesterol from the liver to the cells, which need it. The so-called “good” HDL cholesterol brings fat back to the liver for re-processing. So they both have important roles to play in overall health. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry has persuaded the FDA to set “target” LDL cholesterol levels at 100. But my clinical experience of nearly 30 years as a primary care provider is that it is virtually impossible to achieve LDL levels of 100 without drugs, and this recommendation is pernicious.

Related: 7 Ways to Fix Your Cholesterol

The only reason for short-term (6 months) statin use is to treat ultrasound-proven atherosclerotic plaque, which narrows the arteries and causes high blood pressure and increased risk for stroke. It’s true that plaque is made of calcium, bacteria, and cholesterol, but the cholesterol is like a liquid bandage that tries to heal arteries that have been damaged by years of careless diet. Unfortunately, calcium and bacteria begin to adhere to the helpful cholesterol, which becomes a problem that requires treating, sometimes with short-term statin use.

A better solution is to ingest healing nutrients, especially antioxidant-packed polyphenols—organic pigments from foods such as berries; spices including clove, cinnamon, and turmeric; cacao; green tea; legumes; nuts; and dark leafy greens. Using a drug with rampant side effects (the most notorious statin side effect is muscle wasting) is frankly a bad strategy for improving cardiovascular health—especially when simply reducing (or cutting out) meat in your diet and eating more berries can mostly do the trick.

Lifestyle Science

It may seem like common sense to you and me, but science is slowly discovering that a healthy lifestyle can do more for your well-being than any pharmaceutical drug. In January 2020, the British Medical Journal published findings from a long-term analysis showing that a “healthful” lifestyle (never smoking, normal body-mass index, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, moderate alcohol intake, and high-quality diet) adds 10.7 years of disease-free life to women and 7.6 disease-free years to men.

Last year, the prestigious journal Circulation published a large study—following nearly 120,000 people for over 10 years—showing that the intake of sugary beverages significantly increased mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Artificially sweetened beverages were also associated with increased overall mortality and heart disease, but not necessarily cancer death. The takeaway? Avoid juices, sodas, sports drinks, and any other liquid loaded with sugar or chemicals, and drink water instead.