Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Safer alternatives to statin medications
High cholesterol levels are associated with increased incidences of cardiovascular disease, however, many authorities believe the current federal guidelines on what are considered healthy cholesterol levels may be too low. Cholesterol serves several important functions within our bodies; lowering it too much can actually be harmful. Furthermore, the guidelines have led to the over-prescription of statin medications, which may lead to potentially dangerous side-effects.
Moderate levels of cholesterol are not the enemy we've been told they are. Benefits of cholesterol include being the precursor for many hormones, serving as "insulation" around nerves, forming bile acids (which help us digest fats and absorb fat-soluble vitamins), and being an important component of every cell's membrane.
Emerging research shows low cholesterol levels may account for many symptoms of diseases. In women, it can lead to hormonal imbalances, negatively affecting the menstrual cycle. Low cholesterol levels have also been associated with mental disorders, such as depression and violence.
So, we must walk a middle road. Using statin medications, however, may not always be the best approach. Statins deplete Co-Q10 levels and may damage the liver. There are natural ways to reduce cholesterol levels without dangerous side effects. One of the most promising natural ingredients is phytosterols. The research is so compelling and abundant that, in a rare move, the FDA granted permission for a health claim to be used on phytosterols regarding their effectiveness in lowering cholesterol levels.
HUMAN CLINICAL RESEARCH HAS FOUND THAT PHYTOSTEROLS:
• Are effective in lowering moderately high cholesterol levels
• Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by 10 to 15% in 4 to 8 weeks
• Lower total cholesterol about 10% on average
• Can be taken by people with familial hypercholesterolemia (genetically high cholesterol) and can be safely used in conjunction with statins in those with extremely high cholesterol levels
• Can be safely used by children with familial hypercholesterolemia
• Have no significant side effects
• May work by decreasing cholesterol absorption from the diet
On average, Americans consume about 180 mg of plant sterols daily, a far cry from the necessary 800 mg required to lower cholesterol levels. The most effective way to get adequate phytosterols is to take them as a dietary supplement.
Red yeast rice, another effective natural tool that lowers cholesterol levels, has been the subject of criticism in the recent past due to concerns over quality and the pharmaceutical industry's claim that it too closely resembled statin drugs. In 2001, at a pharmaceutical company's urging, the FDA pulled red yeast rice off the shelves because of the allegation of chemical similarity to prescription statins. The nutraceutical industry eventually won back the right to manufacture and distribute this product on the grounds that the statin portion of the red yeast rice is naturally occurring and perfectly safe to consume.
Red yeast rice has been the subject of a small clinical trial published in the June 2009 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine*. This recent study evaluated the effectiveness of red yeast rice as a natural LDL cholesterol-lowering agent. Sixty-two study participants all had the common experience of significant muscle pain and weakness when taking prescribed statin drugs intended to lower their cholesterol, resulting in their discontinued use of the medication.
Patients were divided into two treatment groups; one taking 1800 mg red yeast rice and the other a placebo, for 24 weeks total. All participants were also enrolled in a 12-week lifestyle change program designed to lower cholesterol levels. After 12 weeks, the group taking red yeast rice saw a 27% decline in LDL levels as compared to baseline at the beginning of the study and a significant decrease in total cholesterol. The placebo group experienced 6% drop in LDL levels.
Having healthy, balanced cholesterol levels is one way that we can help prevent cardiovascular disease. As demonstrated, a rethinking of our current guidelines for what constitutes healthy levels is in order. And while statin medications may be appropriate for someone with very high cholesterol and many other risk factors of cardiovascular disease, the judicious prescribing of statin drugs could stand review.
*Red Yeast Rice for Dyslipidemia in Statin-Intolerant Patients: A Randomized Trial, Becker et al. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2009; 150: 830-839