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Dr. Harkins Educational Moment - Statins, Cholesterol and Oxidation

I was talking to a friend of mine last week. He is a very fit man, 60 years old and also happens to be an anesthesiologist. I started talking about statins and cholesterol. He said to me; “my doctor put me on a statin 2 years ago and I’m now developing diabetes as a side effect!” He went on: ‘I’d much rather have slightly elevated cholesterol versus diabetes!’ We talked for awhile about statins and cholesterol, and the role cholesterol plays in our bodies. This conversation made me realize that even after 20 years of heavily marketing and prescribing stains, the average person, and even a highly educated person, still does not understand cholesterol and the dangerous side effects of statins.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a very important molecule in the human body. Cholesterol is like Mr. Potato Head that kids play with. It’s the building block the body uses to make many other important compounds, such as hormones. Hormones like the sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen are made from cholesterol. The hormone we release in response to stress, cortisol, is made from cholesterol. Many other vital hormones, hormones we can not live without, are made from cholesterol. Cholesterol is in every living cell. The wall of every cell in your body must have cholesterol in it or it will not work properly. Every nerve in your body, especially the brain, is covered by a substance called myelin. This substance, acts like the protective covering on an electrical cord, and is made with cholesterol. In short, cholesterol may be the most important compound in the body.

Where does cholesterol come from? Cholesterol is manufactured and recycled in the liver. It is so important the body actually recycles old cholesterol into new cholesterol depending on what your body needs. We have known since the 1920’s that dietary cholesterol plays little role in blood cholesterol levels. Eating 6 eggs a day will do little to nothing to raise your blood cholesterol, even though eggs contain high amounts of cholesterol.

What about HDL and LDL? HDL and LDL are not cholesterol. I will repeat this: HDL and LDL are NOT cholesterol! They stand for High Density Lipoprotein and Low Density Lipoprotein. They are proteins, NOT cholesterol. HDL and LDL are molecules that carry cholesterol to and from the body and liver. Think of them like the taxis and buses transporting people around the city, but people are cholesterol and the buses are HDL and taxis are LDL. There is no such thing as good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. There is simply cholesterol and cholesterol.

What is high cholesterol? When a person is told they have high cholesterol, it is because they have taken a blood test, and their HDL and or LDL levels are elevated above what is considered normal levels. A better question becomes; why is my HDL and LDL elevated? What is the body trying to do by raising HDL and LDL thereby putting more cholesterol into the body?

What does the body do with cholesterol?

The answer to this question is manyfold. And the answer to this question explains why cholesterol goes up in most people. With the rare exception of familial hypercholesterolemia, a rare genetic disorder that does not allow the body to properly regulate blood cholesterol, the body has a specific and appropriate reason to raise cholesterol. As stated before cholesterol is used to make hormones. Hormones are released for many reasons. One of the most common reasons today is because of stress. Modern humans in the United States do not live anything close to how our ancestors lived. Today we are under stress of many kinds, all day, everyday. This causes the need for hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, adrenaline and noradrenaline to skyrocket. This leads to the liver to pumping out more and more cholesterol to keep up with demand.

Another critical function of cholesterol is: to repair cells. When cells die, or are injured, we need more cholesterol to make new cells and and repair damaged cells. If you are under chronic stress or live a lifestyle that causes chronic tissue damage, you will have a large demand for cholesterol in the body to repair the bad decisions you make. Decisions such as eating McDonalds, drinking too much alcohol, eating a high carbohydrate diet and eating sugar cause tissue damage (also known as oxidative damage, this is why antioxidants are important). Not only does the body need to make new and repair old cells, when you eat a carbohydrate rich, sugar rich diet, the body also must repair artery damage. When you eat sugar, or other bad food, you put oxidants into the blood. Oxidants cause tiny little nicks in the artery wall. This is why they are called oxidants, they search for electrons to steal and when they do, it causes damage. Antioxidants negate this damage. Once the damage is done however; the body is left to repair the hole. Much like you fill a pothole in a road in Indiana, cholesterol comes along and is patched into the hole like asphalt. In this way, the body helps fix the artery wall, but leaves behind a spot that can develop into something called a plaque. Just like a road with filled pot holes becomes bumpy and eventually crumbles, your arteries get hard and full of plaques made of cholesterol.

So what!? What does this have to do with statins????

Today’s medical treatment of choice to the above situation it to give a statin. Herein lies the problem. As you now know, cholesterol is vital to every cell in the body!; so, taking a toxic drug that stops the production of this vital substance is causing great damage to every cell in the body; and, to top it off, IT DOESN’T FIX THE PROBLEM!! Taking a statin does nothing to stop the damaging effects of eating a poor diet and living under constant stress. The damage of these decisions continues while the person thinks they are doing just fine. Millions of people die every single year, and have died every single year, for the last 20 years since statins hit the market. Did they forget to take their medications?? No, more people take statins every year and heart disease death rises every year. Doesn’t anyone stop and ask: if statins prevent heart disease, and everyone is on one, shouldn’t heart disease go down? It does not and will not. It is as insane as blaming the asphalt for your bumpy back road and not thinking it might be the winter conditions that cause the road to fall apart. It’s not cholesterol’s fault, it’s the person’s fault. And it will never get fixed until the person takes responsibility for what they put into their body.

Stay active and feel great!

So what do I do?

To improve your health and reduce your risk of heart disease, consider implementing these. First, eat fresh produce at the beginning of every meal. Fresh produce contains antioxidants you body needs to run properly. Second, exercise; exercise resets your stress hormones after a stressful day, this is why you feel better after a work out. This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon, walking 30 mins a day will do just fine. Third, be grateful. Having a healthy mind and attitude will help you reduce stress and live a more happy productive life:) This is the only way to actually fix the problem of heart disease, you must address the cause.

- Dr. Cory Harkins

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