by Dr. Bryan Warner
The famous Framingham Heart Study first identified high blood cholesterol as a warning of heart disease in 1961. Subsequently, most practitioners of conventional medicine came to pin the blame for heart disease on cholesterol. Now, however, we’re beginning to see cholesterol in a different light.
There’s a growing recognition that cholesterol, far from being the villain, is essential to every cell in the human body and, in fact, to life itself. There’s no question that cholesterol has been associated with heart disease ― but could it be that it’s merely a symptom of heart disease risk and not truly the cause?
Recent research suggests that, rather than so-called “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol being the underlying root cause of cardiac disease, the true culprit is inflammation, which also underlies cancer, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, chronic pain and many other conditions.
If true, of course, that has profound implications for how heart disease should be treated . . . or even prevented.
Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the United States ― despite the fact that, for years, statins have been the go-to drug for lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, strokes, peripheral artery disease and aortic disease. Currently, around 28 million Americans over the age of 40 take statins, making this class of drugs a top money-maker for the pharmaceutical industry.
Statins are supposed to prevent heart attacks by reducing LDL levels, but for many who take them, they don’t. What is more, many people who suffer from or die of heart attacks or strokes have cholesterol levels that fall within normal range.
Clearly, statins aren’t living up to expectations. So what’s next?
A study published in BMJ Open that examined research data on close to 70,000 people raised serious questions about the assumption that underlies statin use ― namely, that LDL cholesterol is the causative factor in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which in turn causes cardiovascular disease.
To the contrary, researchers found that a staggering 92 percent of study subjects with high cholesterol actually live longer than those with low levels!
University of Ireland Professor Sherif Sultan, one of the study authors, bluntly summed up his team’s findings: “The benefits from statin treatment have been exaggerated. Lowering cholesterol with medications is a total waste of time.”
Using natural means to lower cholesterol doesn’t seem to fare any better. The Minnesota Coronary Experiment took place between 1968 and 1973, but it wasn’t published until 2016. Researchers found that lowering cholesterol through dietary modification had no effect at all on risk of death from coronary heart disease. Not only that, but for every 30-point drop in total cholesterol levels, the risk of death from cardiac disease increased by 22 percent!
So, if not cholesterol, what causes cardiovascular disease?
Another study at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital over 25 years tested the theory that reducing the amount of inflammation in the body would lower the risk of recurrent heart attacks or strokes. All 10,000 people enrolled in the study had had a previous heart attack and also had elevated levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, which is a marker of inflammation.
Participants were divided into four groups, three of which were given varying doses of canakinumab, an inflammation-suppressing drug from Novartis that carries a price tag of $200,000 a year. This drug does not affect cholesterol levels. The fourth group received a placebo.
The study, published in The Lancet in 2017, demonstrated that, by quelling inflammation, the drug significantly reduced the risk of repeat cardiovascular events and the need for aggressive interventions such as angioplasty and bypass surgery. The drug also lowered risk of lung cancer and deaths from all causes.
The conclusion? Reducing inflammation does indeed lower the risk of recurring heart attacks; however, in addition to being prohibitively expensive for many people, the drug tested carries side effects, including increased risk of fatal infection.
Ever since the ‘60s, the prevailing belief has been that if you develop cardiovascular disease, it must be because your arteries are clogged with atherosclerotic plaques caused by excessive cholesterol. However, University of Maryland biochemist Beverly Teter has a different understanding of what goes on in your arteries.
Arterial walls, Teter believes, are first injured by inflammation ― NOT by cholesterol. However, when the injury occurs, your body dispatches cholesterol to repair the damage. If the inflammation continues, more cholesterol is released, and it continues to build up in arterial walls like successive layers of plaster. The arteries harden, but the cause is the inflammation, which triggers cholesterol release.
True, statins can reduce cholesterol levels, and to some degree they are anti-inflammatory, but they offer no guarantee of preventing cardiac events.
The chronic oxidative stress and inflammation that lead to atherosclerosis and increased risk of heart attack or stroke are likely outcomes of metabolic syndrome ―a combination of abdominal obesity, hypertension and glucose (sugar) intolerance.
Your total cholesterol numbers won’t really tell you much about your risk of heart attack, stroke or other manifestations of cardiovascular disease. You will get better information if your doctor checks your:
The evidence clearly points to the role of inflammation as a root cause of heart disease, so the question becomes how to treat it. Prescription drugs such as statins have side effects ranging from the mild to the dangerous, including depletion of CoQ10 and vitamin K, along with increased risk of cancer, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, muscoskeletal disorders and cataracts.
Furthermore, pharmaceuticals are basically designed to treat advanced disease, not to prevent development of the disease.
For prevention, I generally recommend the numerous powerful antioxidants and nutrients that mitigate and better control inflammation. Here are two of the best:
More than 6,000 scientific studies attest to the powers of this naturally occurring anti-inflammatory wonder. Curcumin is the active component that comes from the spice turmeric, which is a polyphenol. All polyphenols, which come from plants, have anti-inflammatory properties, and this one is particularly powerful. It’s been shown to be especially effective in reducing the chronic inflammation induced by obesity and metabolic syndrome.
In a 2015 trial, subjects with metabolic syndrome daily took either a placebo or 1 gram of curcumin with bioperine added for improved absorption. After eight weeks, all participants showed a reduction in inflammation.
In other studies, this same dose reduced inflammatory cytokines ― cells excreted by the immune system that promote inflammatory disease such as atherosclerosis. It also significantly lowered LDL and total cholesterol.
Optimal levels of magnesium are essential for optimal health. Your body needs magnesium to function well, and your cells have to have it to produce energy. In addition to migraines, anxiety and depression, low magnesium levels are associated with cardiovascular disease and death from all causes.
Low magnesium also causes inflammation and plays a key role in development of atherosclerosis. Making sure you take sufficient magnesium on a daily basis helps prevent inflammation and thus prevent cardiac events. A recent study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found higher levels of magnesium associated with lower levels of inflammation-promoting C-reactive protein.
Dr. Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle, writes, “Cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease, and the decades-long attempt to treat this condition with statin drugs has failed because the true cause is inflammation.”
She wholeheartedly recommends magnesium: “. . . at the cellular level, magnesium reduces inflammation. With magnesium being actively required by 600 to 700 enzyme systems in the human body, internal functions that reduce inflammation with the help of magnesium are being newly discovered every year.”
Curcumin, magnesium and other anti-inflammatories can help keep inflammation at bay, along with all its many associated diseases, including heart disease.
At BodyLogicMD – St. Louis, our focus is prevention of disease. We help our patients make healthy dietary and lifestyle choices, balance their hormones and identify restorative supplements ― all of which increase energy, promote vitality, and help achieve optimal health. To schedule an appointment, call us at 314.735.0780.
Bodkin, H. High cholesterol ‘does not cause heart disease’ new research finds, soo treating with statins a ‘waste of time.’ Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/06/12/high-cholesterol-does-not-cause-heart-disease-new-research-finds/. June 16, 2016.
Cartwright, S. Curcumin Provides Targeted Cardiovascular Protection. Life Extension Magazine. http://www.lifeextension.com/Magazine/2017/10/Curcumin-Targets-Cardiovascular-Disorders/Page-01. Oct. 2017.
Garbarino, J. Cholesterol and Controversy: Past, present and Future. Scientific American. https://blogs. scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/cholesterol-confusion-and-why-we-should-rethink-our-approach-to-statin-therapy/. Nov. 15, 2011.
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