Contributing Editor: Health Sciences Institute, 3/5/2002

Learn the hidden side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs

If you have high cholesterol, chances are your doctor has already talked to you about the cholesterol-lowering drugs called “statins.” Statins are one of the most frequently prescribed drug classes in the world – over five million people in the U.S. alone are currently taking them.

Doctors like statins because they work – and they work quickly and easily. But, as they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, statins work – but at what price? Certainly, they are expensive in dollar terms – but I’m really talking about the physical toll these drugs can take on the body. We know some of the obvious side effects they cause in some people, like liver damage, sexual dysfunction, and peripheral neuropathy. But now a new study shows that statins can also have more subtle effects on the body – ones that can trigger a whole cascade of health problems down the road.

Do statins’ results justify their collateral damage?

In this Finnish study, doctors researched the effects of the statin drug simvastatin (Zocor) and dietary changes on 120 men between the ages of 35 and 64. All of the men had high cholesterol (fasting serum concentrations between 232 and 309) that had previously been untreated. The men were randomly divided into two equal groups: one group was advised to continue following their usual diet, while the other group was advised to follow a Mediterranean-style diet. Specifically, the dietary intervention included keeping saturated fat intake below 10 percent of total calories, cholesterol intake below 250 mg a day, and increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, and soluble fiber.

Then each group was further divided into two subgroups that took either 20 mg of simvastatin each day or a placebo. They followed this protocol for 12 weeks, and then each subgroup “crossed over” to the other treatment. At baseline and at the end of each 12-week treatment period, the researchers assessed each participant’s blood pressure, weight, and exercise frequency, as well as blood levels of cholesterol, insulin, and antioxidants.

There’s no denying that simvastatin was effective at reducing cholesterol levels. On average, the drug brought total cholesterol levels down 20.8 percent. In contrast, dietary intervention alone decreased total cholesterol by only 7.6 percent.

Statin drug’s surprising side effects lead down a dangerous road

But here’s the revealing finding: simvastatin treatment also INCREASED fasting serum insulin levels by 13 percent, and DECREASED serum concentrations of important antioxidant vitamins by as much as 22 percent. Among participants in the dietary intervention group, blood tests revealed significantly lower serum levels of critical nutrients like alpha-tocopherol, beta-carotene, and co-enzyme Q-10 while taking the statin drug, compared to the period when they took the placebo. At the same time, glucose levels were not affected, suggesting a decrease in insulin sensitivity.

We know that decreased insulin sensitivity leads us down a dangerous road: insulin resistance, which leads to Type II diabetes, and finally all the disease’s associated conditions like kidney disease, heart disease, even blindness. But not getting the antioxidants you need could be equally troubling. We’ve learned so much over the past decade about antioxidants’ critical role in good health; these nutrients help protect us from atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease – even cancer.

You could argue that statin drugs protect us, too – by reducing cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of heart disease. But it seems like a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Ok, so your cholesterol level comes down – but your insulin levels could go up and your body could be robbed of essential nutrients. Considering all of that, is the net effect of statins positive, negative – or just a very expensive wash?

You have to make that decision for yourself, after weighing the options with your doctor. But consider that there are safe, natural ways to lower your cholesterol WITHOUT running the risk of insulin resistance, nutrient loss, or other dangerous side effects.

If you have high cholesterol, give diet, exercise, and natural remedies a try before resorting to statins. You may have to be a little more patient; you may not see results as quickly and dramatically as you might by taking the drugs. But in the end, you’ll know for sure that you’re netting positive results for your heart – and for your overall health.

Source: JAMA 2002;287:598-605