Every year, doctors in America write 240 million prescriptions for statins, such as simvastatin (Zocor) or atorvastatin (Lipitor), to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

But here’s a little-known fact: Although statins lower LDL, as advertised, for most people, that reduction doesn’t translate to a lower risk of heart disease.

Looking at the data

In new research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine), three cardiologists analyzed the results of 35 studies on lowering LDL cholesterol with statins or other cholesterol medications. Nearly half of the studies failed to show that taking statins or other LDL-lowering medications reduced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), and 75 percent showed no reduction in rates of death from heart disease.

What’s more, there was no consistent correlation between lowering LDL and cardiovascular protection. In many of the studies, large drops in LDL levels produced no reduction in heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from CVD. In others, failure to significantly decrease LDL did not lead to more heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from CVD. In fact, in 14 of the 35 studies, a failure to decrease LDL reduced the risk for heart attacks and strokes. The researchers noted that, in the United States, cardiovascular deaths are increasing despite the rising use of statins and lower levels of cholesterol overall.

The only proven and reliable benefit of statins for CVD is for men under 75 with heart disease or a previous heart attack or stroke. Statins work in this case by thinning the blood and reducing inflammation, not by lowering LDL.

Questioning the prevailing theory

The study authors concluded that using statins and other drugs to reduce the risk of CVD is a failed strategy. They wrote: “Considering that dozens of randomly controlled trials of LDL-cholesterol reduction have failed to demonstrate a consistent benefit, we should question the validity of this theory. In most fields of science, the existence of contradictory evidence usually leads to a paradigm shift or modification of the theory in question, but in this case, the contradictory evidence has been largely ignored, simply because it doesn’t fit the prevailing paradigm.”

How did the experts get it so wrong?

The main factor behind the persistence of the prevailing paradigm is profit—for the food industry and for drug companies. In the 1960s, the dietary causes of heart disease were still a matter of debate—with many scientists asserting that cholesterol-raising saturated fat found in meat, dairy, and eggs was the culprit, and others pointing to artery-damaging sugar. The debate was largely decided by a seemingly definitive 1967 study conducted by Harvard scientists and published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. It reviewed the link between sugar and heart disease and concluded sugar did not play a role in heart disease, and that the only dietary factors of importance were fat and cholesterol.

But recent investigative research revealed that the study was secretly funded, designed, and directed by the Sugar Research Foundation—a trade group dedicated to the profitability of sugar.

LDL-lowering statins came on the market in the 1990s and were heavily promoted by drug companies as the answer to heart disease. However, the results of statin-supported research were consistently exaggerated by those same drug companies and the scientists they funded—as demonstrated by the new BMJ study.

The real risk

What is significantly more worrisome than high cholesterol is insulin resistance. This condition doesn’t account for 100 percent of heart disease, but it predicts CVD better than any other variable studied. Research by the late Gerald Reaven, MD, of Stanford University, showed that insulin resistance dramatically increases the risk of heart disease. Other researchers found that insulin resistance was the only significant predictor of a second heart attack, while LDL cholesterol had no predictive value.

A hormone manufactured by the pancreas, insulin ushers blood sugar (glucose) out of the bloodstream and into muscle cells, where it is used for energy. But in an estimated 50 percent of Americans, insulin doesn’t work that way. That’s because excessive stress and a daily diet rich in refined carbohydrates trigger the pancreas to pump out unnatural amounts of insulin—so much that the muscle cells begin to resist the hormone. Instead, the glucose is stored in fat cells. Those cells release a flood of inflammatory chemicals—and inflammation is one of the major causes of CVD. It makes arteries vulnerable to artery-clogging plaque. Insulin resistance also causes high blood pressure; increases triglycerides; lowers heart-protective HDL cholesterol; and increases small, dense LDL particles. This subtype of LDL is dangerous because—in contrast to large, fluffy LDL particles—it can burrow into arteries.

Are you insulin resistant?

Fortunately, there is a simple way to figure out if you’re insulin resistant: Measure your waist. Men with waist sizes of 40 inches or more are almost certainly insulin resistant, as are women with waist sizes of 35 inches or more. However, about one in 10 people with insulin resistance are slim—their sugar-generated fat isn’t right under their skin, but invisibly wrapped around their abdominal organs, a form of fat scientists call visceral.

Another giveaway is the ratio of your triglycerides divided by your HDL. An ideal ratio is 2 or under.

Addressing insulin resistance

The best way to eliminate insulin resistance is by changing your diet.

  • Sugar is the biggest threat to your heart. Cut out soda, processed cereals, pasta, bread, cakes, candies, pastries, and doughnuts.
  • Avoid trans fats, a highly inflammatory form of fat that has been removed from much of the food supply, but may still be found in non-dairy creamers, margarine, ramen noodles, energy bars, and fast food.
  • Don’t eat processed meats, such as salami, sausages, hot dogs, luncheon meats, and bacon. They contribute to inflammation and heart disease.
  • Cut back on omega-6 fats, which are found in vegetable oils such as corn, canola, and soybean. They’re also pro-inflammatory.

Eat this instead

Research shows the higher the average daily consumption of vegetables and fruits, the lower the chances of developing CVD.

  • Eat five to nine half-cup servings of vegetables and fruits each day. The most protective are green, leafy veggies, such as spinach and kale, and cruciferous veggies, such as cauliflower and broccoli. Berries and cherries are also loaded with anti-inflammatory compounds.
  • Wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies are loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and are low in mercury. Eat these at least twice a week.
  • Eat more nuts. Five large studies have found a consistent 30 to 50 percent lower risk of heart disease or heart attacks linked to eating nuts several times a week.
  • Eat more beans. One study found that one serving of beans daily lowered the risk of a heart attack by 38 percent. Eat a serving of beans or lentils at least four times a week.
  • Favor dark chocolate for dessert. It’s rich in flavanols, a heart-protecting antioxidant. Research has found that regular chocolate consumption reduces CVD by 37 percent. Look for a product with no less than 60 percent cocoa. Eat one or two squares four to six days a week.
  • Use only olive oil. Dozens of studies show it’s one of the healthiest fats for the heart.
  • Use more garlic. It lowers blood pressure and thins the blood. In one study, people who used garlic powder regularly for four years had a 2.6 percent regression in arterial plaque—while people who used a placebo powder had a 15.6 percent increase.

Supplement superstars

I’ve used these two science-backed nutritional supplements (and many others) in my practice for decades—and they’re superb for protecting and restoring the health of the heart.

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) helps create cellular energy from nutritional fuel. And the heart—which beats more than 100,000 times a day—is dependent on the energy-generating power of CoQ10. It also helps protect against the side effects of energy-depleting statins. Recommended dose: At least 100 milligrams (mg), twice a day.

The mineral magnesium can help prevent and manage both insulin resistance and high blood pressure. It also helps stop the calcification that underlies clogged arteries. Recommended dose: 400 mg daily. (Magnesium supplementation is not recommended for anyone with kidney disease.)

Stress is hard on your heart

Chronic stress is a major instigator of inflammation and high blood pressure and weakens your heart. Use the relaxation response exercise every day for 10 to 20 minutes to decrease heart rate, lower blood pressure, slow breath, and relax the muscles. Sit quietly in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say one word silently to yourself.

Related Articles