“Jim” was a patient of mine years back. He had come to me for holistic advice on heart health—his doctors were recommending statin drugs to control his cholesterol, even though he’d never had a heart attack. As an integrative physician, I occasionally prescribe certain pharmaceuticals when the patient and I feel it’s necessary. But statins aren’t on my list, and Jim had good reason to be wary. However, with the best of intentions, Jim’s family persuaded him to take the drugs.
He had always been an active walker and hiker, but a few months after he began the drug regimen, he developed debilitating muscle pain and progressive weakness in his legs, including night spasms. He was unable to hike and take long walks anymore. This is a tragically common, well-documented side effect of statin drugs, but it’s not the only one. There have even been reports of patients developing temporary amnesia or progressive memory loss and confusion, also believed to be a result of these drugs.
When Jim came to see me later in the year, I was struck by his decline—he had seemed to fast-forward the aging process. We discussed ways to ease him off of the statins, but it took almost two years to restore Jim’s health so that he had enough energy for life. His recovery program included a nutrient-dense diet, specific supplements, mind-body exercises, and targeted clinical treatments.
The Risks of Statins
Today, a number of studies and reports suggest what many people have observed clinically: That statins can contribute to severe and sometimes irreversible damage to mitochondria, the tiny “engines” in cells that produce energy. Mitochondria are responsible for countless functions throughout the body. Statins work by blocking an enzyme needed to produce cholesterol called HMG coenzyme-A reductase. But in blocking this enzyme, statins also interfere with the production of critical nutrients such as Co-Q10, thus damaging cellular mitochondria. Symptoms of damage include muscle pain, weakness, liver problems, metabolic problems, memory impairment, neurological disease, and more. In fact, people on statins have a significant increase in their chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
Yet statins are still hailed by many as “wonder drugs” that can save lives by preventing heart attacks. It’s even been suggested that we add statins to public water supplies. Are the benefits really worth the risks?
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Heart Wrenching Stats
According to the American Heart Association, more than 2,100 Americans die each day from a heart-related condition. Survivors face their own hurdles with lingering conditions like angina and congestive heart failure. Obviously, we should be doing everything possible to care for our hearts.
But we aren’t. Most Americans don’t fulfill basic guidelines for regular exercise and eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) full of inflammatory foods like sugar and unhealthy fats. Nearly 20 percent still smoke. These habits invite disease, and not just heart disease, but cancer, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, dementia, and more. We simply need to do a better job—as a society—of taking care of ourselves. This also means looking critically at the drugs that are all-too-often prescribed as Band-Aids to much bigger lifestyle problems.
A hard look at statin studies suggests that they only provide minimal benefits—on average about a three percent reduction in the risk of a heart attack. On the other hand, the chances of developing serious side effects are higher.
And importantly, there’s no clear evidence that simply lowering cholesterol actually prevents heart disease.
The Real Culprit
Popular wisdom states that high cholesterol causes arterial plaque to build up, generating arterial blockages and heart disease. But actually, it’s the type of cholesterol: Oxidized (i.e., “rancid”) LDL cholesterol is what contributes to this damaging plaque buildup. Oxidized cholesterol comes from eating cooked (rancid) vegetable oils, found in most fried and/or processed foods. It is also created inside the body as a result of chronic inflammation, toxins, and free radical damage, turning LDL cholesterol into hard arterial plaque that triggers more inflammatory reactions and furthers this vicious cycle.
The real risks for heart disease come from chronic inflammation. It oxidizes cholesterol, produces damaging free radicals, and fuels uncontrollable scarring that causes tissues and organs to harden and lose their function. Large-scale studies now show that people with high levels of C-reactive protein, and especially with high levels of galectin-3, (both are blood markers of inflammation) have a much higher risk of heart disease.
Researchers have also linked cardiovascular disease to insulin resistance, which is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes and its precursor, metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance causes chronically high blood glucose levels, which in turn fuel chronic inflammation. Metabolic diseases are closely linked to chronic inflammation through a number of pathways.
Diet is such a fundamental factor in both causing and healing numerous diseases, most of which are related to inflammation. In the case of cardiovascular disease, I am often amazed that dietary recommendations aren’t the first line of treatment. Given the choice between a lethal condition, relatively ineffective and dangerous pharmaceuticals, and eating more vegetables and fruits, it seems like a no-brainer.
However, this is just another example of our backwards thinking. We seek expensive and sometimes debilitating treatments for a condition we could easily prevent.
So let’s talk a little more about prevention using nutrient-dense whole foods. That means avoiding a lot of commercial products that contain processed ingredients, trans-fats and vegetable oils, sugars, and artificial ingredients. Instead emphasize lean proteins; healthy raw fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado; raw nuts and seeds; and most importantly, lots of vegetables and fruits. I particularly recommend green leafy vegetables and brightly colored fruits such as berries, as they have the highest concentrations of critical phytonutrients shown to promote cardiovascular health.
These simple adjustments will protect the heart and also help the body ward off cancer, metabolic syndrome, chronic inflammation, and other conditions.
Heart Healthy Exercise
Next to food, physical activity is the best way to prevent cardiovascular disease. Stress generates inflammatory hormones such as cortisol, and exercise is a great stress reliever. It also promotes healthy circulation which controls inflammation, stabilizes blood pressure, boosts metabolism, balances blood sugar, and contributes to mental wellbeing.
Some people prefer brutal, boot camp-like workouts, but they’re hardly necessary to maintain cardiovascular health. In fact, they can actually contribute to chronic inflammation. A brisk walk each day can do the trick. Try to incorporate small strategies to get the heart rate up. Take a walk around the block, park farther away, or choose the stairs over the elevator.
I also recommend “moving meditations” such as yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong, which have the added advantage of calming the mind while toning the body and reducing cortisol.
Diet and exercise are powerful medicine and a number of studies have shown that heart disease can actually be reversed through this simple prescription. It seems like a great alternative to medications and surgery.
Supplements to improve Heart Health
There are a number of supplements that can also benefit heart health. These work to support circulation and healthy blood pressure and help reduce inflammation.
One of my favorite heart-healthy supplements is nattokinase, the powerful enzyme found in a popular Japanese soy food called natto. Because it thins the blood, clears arterial blockages, and improves circulation, natto has been used for hundreds of years to support cardiovascular health. Nattokinase also helps reduce inflammation.
A good botanical is hawthorn berry, which is used to improve circulation and treat angina, arrhythmias, and congestive heart failure. Hawthorn is widely prescribed in Europe to treat cardiovascular disease.
The amino acid L-carnitine has numerous cardioprotective effects and also supports efficient metabolism.
In my practice, I recommend a comprehensive circulation formula that includes these and other nutraceutical ingredients to support healthy blood pressure, circulation, and overall cardiovascular health.
There is another supplement called modified citrus pectin that is particularly good for heart health because it works so well to control inflammation. A fast-growing body of research shows that one of the main culprits in inflammation and subsequent fibrosis (scar tissue buildup) is the protein galectin-3. While galectin-3 is necessary in small amounts, when the body produces too much it can lead to chronic inflammation and fibrosis, as well as cancer proliferation and metastasis. In 2011, the FDA approved the galectin-3 blood test to screen for cardiovascular disease.
Modified citrus pectin is derived from fruit peels and has received a great deal of attention recently for its ability to bind galectin-3 and block its harmful effects. A 2012 animal study shows that controlling galectin-3 with modified citrus pectin reduces arterial hardening.
MCP has a number of other uses, including reducing heavy metal toxicity, blocking cancer growth and metastasis, and modulating immunity. You can read more about this ingredient at mcpreport.org.
Cardiovascular disease is so prevalent in the United States that many people have accepted it as a fait accompli. Sure, if we lead sedentary lives, eat primarily processed foods, smoke, and drink too much, those behaviors will damage our heart health.
But we don’t have to live that way. While it’s true that people with a family history of heart disease have genetic issues to contend with, for the most part, it’s preventable. We need only make the right lifestyle adjustments. The reward is overall good health and a free pass to avoid the cardiologist.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc has been a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine since the early 1980s, with a focus on cancer, immune health, detoxification and mind-body medicine.