Dr. Amy Whittington
Published May 1, 2012
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With obvious beneficial functions of cholesterol paired with known side effects of low levels, it is obvious that we at least need to consider medicating less, and allowing cholesterol levels to rise again. As you contemplate this, also realize that the medications that are being used, and likely over-used, are not without their own side effects. The most common cholesterol medications, the statin family of pharmaceuticals, have long been related to myalgia (generalized pain), possible liver damage, and more recently to dementia. In February of this year, the FDA added dementia to the label as a side effect of these drugs, along with elevated blood sugar level (which, ironically, is a co-morbidity for many who are taking statins). Many argue that the benefits still outweigh the risks, but you should ask yourself if you are really benefiting enough from these medications to justify their side effects.
Reports of over-inflated statin results and questions of whether their use decreases disease or death at all are around, but again, conspiracies aside, we need to be aware of the physiology to question whether we’ve over-villainized cholesterol. For years we blamed cholesterol for heart disease nearly exclusively. We now know that inflammation in arterial walls is likely the instigator, and without these damaged walls, cholesterol has nothing to stick to and won’t cause hardening of the walls (arteriosclerosis) or a clot (atherosclerosis). This is why so many people who do have high cholesterol, especially young people who have familial hypercholesterolemia, don’t usually have heart attacks at a young age. Additionally, cholesterol won’t stick to the walls unless it becomes oxidized, or damaged by free radicals. If you want to decrease your chances of a heart attack, decrease your inflammation and increase your anti-oxidants (your doctor should be able to tell you how to eat a low inflammatory, high anti-oxidant diet).
All of this isn’t to say that cholesterol shouldn’t be held in check, as it does also play a role in heart disease. The point is simply this: cholesterol, like most substances that occur naturally in the body, serves many important roles. We have become so focused on keeping it low that we just might have lost sight of its necessity, and become too tolerable of medication side effects that may not be necessary at all. It’s important to know your number, so as always, see your doctor for your physical, but don’t be afraid to ask the question, “How low is too low?”
Take Care & Stay Healthy,
Dr. Amy Whittington