Everyone Should Take Statin Drugs… Really?

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Wow, please stop the presses. When I heard this same physician-based advice from not 1, but 4 of my clients in a single month, I said to myself, it’s time to address this issue. OK, first of all, Statin drugs, as many of you know, are drugs used to lower cholesterol, thereby intended as a preventative for heart attacks. So far so good. But here’s the strange part, each of my four clients (who had received this advice from their doctors) had cholesterol levels that were, in my opinion, far too low. These physicians, it seems, did not want to discontinue the drugs because of their belief that everyone can benefit from them. And as a practical matter it seems that once they are prescribed, they are rarely discontinued. Let me be crystal clear about this: I have been a pharmacist for almost 30 years and there has never been a drug recommended for disease prevention in everyone! This, in my opinion, is a tactic used by the pharmaceutical industry to make even more profits from what is already the most popular drug class in the world. And unfortunately, many physicians receive their drug information directly from the pharmaceutical industry. Although statin drugs do lower cholesterol, there is in fact, controversy as to how effective they are in actually extending life span. To date, there is no study to show a statistical decrease in mortality in women treated with statins.

Please let’s set the record straight, cholesterol is vital to health. It’s necessary for proper neurological functioning, hormone production and effectiveness, producing bile salts for fat digestion, maintaining integrity of cell membranes, to name just a few critical functions. Cholesterol is not “the bad guy” here. In fact, cholesterol can become too low, a condition that may be associated with depression, hormonal issues, decreased libido, blood sugar issues, fatigue, decreased healing time, and weakened immunity. Cholesterol is a problem only when levels become excessive, and is only one of many factors that can increase the risk of heart attack. So treating high cholesterol without considering all the other factors involved is simply not good medicine. Some of my clients, for example, have been prescribed statin drugs without ever having other inflammatory markers and other risk factors assessed.

So what are the “statin” drugs? The most commonly prescribed are Lipitor, Zocor, Lescol and Pravachol. These drugs are linked to many serious side effects, making it irresponsible, in my opinion, to recommend them except when absolutely necessary. And necessity is not a black or white situation. It depends on a person’s willingness and ability to reduce cholesterol using safer means such as diet, lifestyle changes and supplement approaches. Other inflammatory and risk markers should also be assessed first. And, the dose should be altered or discontinued when healthy cholesterol levels are achieved, if possible. There is some very limited preliminary study results that indicate statins may even reduce risk of future heart incidents in men with previous heart attack or heart disease history, even with healthy cholesterol levels. But this is still controversial, and the early evidence is only in men not women. As with all pharmaceuticals, the risks of side effects should always be weighed against the benefits. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a place for statin drugs in medical treatment. I’m concerned, however, at their overuse, and often-minimal consideration of the serious side effects of these drugs. These side effects range from dizziness, digestive disturbances, headache and fatigue to much more serious side effects like profound fatigue, changes in eyesight, joint pain, liver toxicity (alcohol use should be limited) and muscle degeneration associated with muscle weakness and pain. This muscle weakness and pain may be debilitating, and may be associated with fever and flu-like symptoms. This particular side effect does not necessarily go away when the drug is stopped.

Alternatively, there are diet and lifestyle changes, as well as myriad supplements that can beneficially affect cholesterol. Of course in some cases where alternative approaches aren’t effective, cholesterol-lowering pharmaceuticals may, in fact, be appropriate. Again, there are many factors that increase risk of heart disease and a heart incident. All of these factors should be considered in a treatment plan, not just cholesterol levels. I can help guide you in making sure you are getting all of the factors tested and monitored.