The Truth About Cholesterol Lowering Drugs: Is Diet a Better Option?

Cholesterol lowering drugs—also known as statins—are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the world. Almost one quarter of Americans 45 years and older are on a statin drug. You probably know many people who are on a statin or perhaps you are taking one yourself.

It makes a lot of sense to lower your cholesterol since heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States. However there are a lot of concerns about whether taking statin drugs is worth the risk.

Studies have found that statins do not decrease mortality rates in healthy people who do not have heart disease. A recent analysis of 11 studies, which included 65,229 healthy but high-risk men and women, found that taking statins did not decrease the risk of dying. A 2011 Cochrane review found similar results.

In addition, when a healthy person takes a statin, the risk of a heart attack or stroke drops from 3 or 4 percent to 2 percent—not very impressive!

The downside to taking statins is they can cause muscle pain, kidney and liver damage, and fatigue. They have also been linked with memory loss and 1 out of 200 people on statins will develop diabetes. In women, the diabetes risk may even be higher. The Women’s Health Initiative found a 48 percent adjusted increased risk of diabetes for women who were taking statins.

Recent animal research has found that rats given these drugs could not run as far as non-medicated rats. The levels of oxidative stress (a marker for possible cell damage) increased by 226% in exercising rats. And the rats had less stored carbohydrate in their muscle (glycogen). Also, the mitochondria—the mechanism in the cell that produces energy—were not working as well or correctly. This probably explains the fatigue that can come with taking statins. Ironically, these drugs make it harder to exercise for the very people who need it the most!

Let’s take a look at the research around diet. There are many published studies but I am only going to mention two. The “Lifestyle Heart Trial” found that a low-fat vegetarian diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes, lowered cholesterol as much as statin drugs. And the study proved that diet and lifestyle changes could actually reverse heart disease.

The second study compared two diets. One diet was vegetarian, low in fat, and included fiber from bread. This group also took a statin. The other group ate a low-fat vegetarian diet which included a “dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods” such as beans, lentils, oats, psyllium, almonds, and other veggies and fruit high in water-soluble fiber. The group that ate the “portfolio of foods” lowered their cholesterol as much the group taking statin drugs.

When you consider the potential side effects, and that you can get the same decrease in cholesterol by changing your diet and lifestyle, I can’t help but wonder why anyone without a history of heart disease would take these drugs. You would get more benefit from eating a healthy diet and exercising. Not only will these lifestyle changes lower your cholesterol, they will also help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, decrease inflammation, make the plaque in your arteries more stable, slow or halt the progression of atherosclerosis (blocked arteries), lower your risk of cancer and improve your mood. Need I say more?

If you are on a statin, and you have never had a heart attack, stent, or bypass surgery, I would seriously consider changing your diet instead of taking this drug. If your doctor recommends that you take a statin, talk with him or her about holding off so you can try making significant changes to your diet for a month or two and then retest your cholesterol.

Physicians Rita Redberg, MD and Mitchell Katz, MD sum it up nicely by saying: “Advising healthy patients to take a drug that does not offer the possibility to feel better or live longer and has significant adverse effects with potential decrement in quality of life is not in their interest.”

Disclaimer: Talk with your health care provider for advice regarding your particular situation.

Copyright © 2012 Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD. All rights reserved.