The latest research on statins and cholesterol

05.06.14 |

High cholesterol is a serious health concern

It increases your risk of heart disease, which, according to the Center for Disease Control, is the leading cause of death in the United States.

The CDC has some other troubling statistics about cholesterol: 71 million American adults have high cholesterol and less than half of adults ever get treatment for it.

Because high cholesterol can be dangerous, many physicians prescribe statins to lower cholesterol levels. Statins inhibit an enzyme that is key to cholesterol production in the liver, where the majority of cholesterol is produced. The Mayo Clinic also notes that statins “may also help your body reabsorb cholesterol that has built up in plaques on your artery walls, preventing further blockage in your blood vessels and heart attacks.”

Statins, according to current research, work as advertised, but new research has uncovered a side effect: Patients taking Statins seem to be more likely to eat unhealthy food because they feel as though their prescription protects them from the consequences of poor nutritional choices. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that caloric and fat intake increased in statin users and that the body mass index for statin users increased more quickly in comparison to non-users.

The study’s authors conclude that “the importance of dietary composition may need to be reemphasized for statin users.”

From a physician’s perspective, this study confirms a long-held suspicion about statins and similar treatments. Despite the amazing advances we’ve made in medicine over the last few decades, we have yet to find a treatment that can have a larger effect on a patient’s health than lifestyle change. Statins are a tool, not a cure. They help us to quickly address troubling levels of cholesterol, but the only reliable way to maintain healthy cholesterol levels is to adopt the appropriate Habits of Health.

The Mayo Clinic, in a piece that I cited earlier, says that “lifestyle changes are essential for reducing your risk of heart disease, whether you take a statin or not.”

I, and the rest of the medical community, agree. It’s tempting to think of the medicines we take as cures, and it’s not surprising that many statin users felt a false sense of security and chose to worsen their diets. The way we’ve been conditioned to think about health over the course of our lives fosters an environment where these sorts of misconceptions can thrive. We focus too much on fixing the things that are broken. Stomach ache? Take this. Chest pains? Take this. Can’t sleep at night? Take this.

When we view our health through this lens, we miss the big picture.
We miss the opportunity to create health.
Ask yourself this fundamental question.

If you could potentially live a longer healthier life is that important to you?

If the answer is yes, relying on medications will not get the job done. You may live longer, but it will probably be at the expense of progressively poorer health. The test that reveals an increase in our cholesterol is a sign from your body that you are not doing a good job of managing your health. If you drove a new car out of the showroom and the oil light came on as you motored down the street would you reach under the dash and disable the warning? Yet everyday we millions of people take medications to disable the symptoms that are warning signs from our bodies. Pain relievers, indigestion remedies, and yes cholesterol-lowering drugs are masking behaviors that should be signaling us that our bodies are being harmed.

Using Statins alone, are like a dermatologist cutting out a metastasized skin cancer without addressing the underlying spread of your cancer. It looks good on the surface but will show up somewhere else. Eating more calories and fat and gaining weight will continue to have negative effects on many areas of your body. In essence, health care providers are enabling you with a traditional reactive approach to continue to make poor health choices. You may counter, the lifespan of Americans has been increasing as a result of health care and you would be right.

The catch is it is not in a healthy state. In fact, the quality of life years (QUALY) indices show that our years of poor health are increasing substantially.

We are indeed living longer in an unhealthy state. One filled with doctors, medicines, surgeries, pain, suffering, and progressive disabilities. The burden on our society in terms of financial and suffering is not sustainable.

In addition, the strides in longevity to this point will soon reverse as a result of the mercurial rise in obesity starting in the 80’s. As the baby boomers move into the 70’s they will experience progressively poorer health resulting from a lifetime of unhealthy habits. Unfortunately, society will no longer have the financial or resource capability to fix their lifestyle-induced diseases like in the past.

We must stop the madness. We need to stop playing this game. You need to.

I would like you to consider a different approach. Instead of jumping from health problem to health problem looking for quick fixes, let’s focus on what you can do to actually create optimal health in your life.

Once you have adopted a health orientation, you can educate yourself on which choices actually support long-term optimal health. I have found that less than 5 % of us are actually leading ourselves on a path that will maximize our chances of living longer in the most optimal state possible. And yet with knowledge, strategies, skills, and support making lifestyle decisions that promote health, optimizing health within reach for all of us. This route may not be as easy as filling a prescription, but the rewards are greater. You get to live a longer, more active life.

To put the final word on statins, lifestyle change is essential, and this will be true of virtually all medical treatments. If you are currently taking statins though, do not stop. Talk to your doctor about other ways to lower your cholesterol and what you can do to maintain healthy cholesterol levels when you reach them. There is a chance that you might need to remain on statins indefinitely once you’ve begun, but that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing the many rewards of optimal health.

Of course, it is easy to think that drugs can bypass living a healthy life. This is the big misconception of the 21 Century. (It was also a big misconception of the 20th Century.) We would rather have others take responsibility for our health, the doctor, the pharmaceutical company, the FDA. At what point do we realize that it always comes down to us. Usually when it’s to late.

A crisis generates a sudden reaction. But, whatever new resolutions you adopt, they will not be sustainable if you are motivated by your own emotional conflict. Soon, you will get used to the new situation. Your resolve will slip and you will fall back into your old lifestyle habits. This is why people yo-yo on diets. It’s the motivation that tells the story.
Being against bad health is not the same as being in favor of good health and well-being. There is a difference between building demolition and architecture. In one case, you are taking actions to get rid of something. In the other case, you are taking actions to come into being. The same principle applies to creating optimal health. It is toward something you want, not against something you don’t want. And, here is the key to both motivation and true strategy: choices.

If the primary or major goal is to build a lifetime of health and well-being, what actions do we need to take to support that goal?

The answer to this question becomes the health strategy we adopt. These are strategic choices. They are called secondary choices because they have one and only one purpose, to support and help create the successful accomplishment of the primary goal. I may hate to exercise. But, if it supports my primary goal of optimal health, then, like it or not, I’ll exercise. And I don’t have to lie to myself about it. I can truthfully say, “I hate to exercise, but I am doing it, not because I like it, but because it supports my more important goal, optimal health.”

We are motivated to change our lifestyle if we are clear about the outcome we want to create. We will fall into old and bad habits if we are simply trying to overcome threatening symptoms. So, focus on the outcome you want to create. Be clear about it. Know your starting point. Become aware of the strategic actions you will need to take to accomplish your health goal, and then, stay tuned into the reason for your actions, to create your wonderful goal of optimal health.