To the average doctor statins can seem like something of a wonder drug. These drugs lower cholesterol and can stabilize plaques reducing the chances of a heart attack or stroke. Confronted by a patient with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and all the other indicators of risk for a sudden cardiac episode there are few physicians who wouldn’t reach for statins. Unfortunately, even wonder drugs aren’t problem free. Statin side effects are real and are a frequent occurrence for those taking statins.

In this excerpt from the book, “Real Cause, Real Cure by Jacob Teitelbaum MD and Bill Gottlieb CHC statin side effects and the effects they can have on your health.

Statins: Low Cholesterol, High Side Effects

Heart disease is the number-one killer of Americans, so it’s no surprise that one of the most prescribed class of drugs in America are the statins, which lower cholesterol by blocking the action of an enzyme involved in its production. The three most prescribed statins are simvastatin (Zocor), atorvastatin (Lipitor), and pravastatin (Pravachol). There are more than 235 million yearly prescriptions for these and other statins, putting more than $17 billion into the coffers of drug companies. In fact, many doctors now recommend statins even when you don’t have high cholesterol but do have high levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker for artery-hurting inflammation.

When they came on the market in 1987, statins were immediately touted as a “miracle medicine” that could prevent heart attacks and strokes, with nary a side effect. Well, maybe the drug didn’t produce many serious side effects in the original clinical trials, which lasted a couple of months. But as the years passed, the reported side effects piled up.

Unfortunately, it’s taken most doctors decades to catch on to the fact that statins aren’t perfectly safe—and many doctors still haven’t gotten the news. In one study, published in the journal Drug Safety, 50 percent of doctors dismissed the possibility that a statin could have caused the side effect reported by a patient who recently started the drug. Twenty-five percent said the statin might be the cause, and 25 percent wouldn’t commit either way. In another study, in the journal Drug Safety—Case Reports, five doctors (yes, doctors!) who took statins and had side effects experienced “dismissive attitudes” from the prescribing physicians.

But Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, and her colleagues of University of California, San Diego, know all about statin side effects. They conducted the Statins Side Effects Study—collecting anecdotal reports from more than 5,000 people who had one or more side effects after starting a statin. They found that the following side effects were very commonly reported…

  • Muscle pain (myalgia)
  • Fatigue
  • Exercise intolerance (muscles too painful and weak to exercise)
  • Memory loss
  • Peripheral neuropathy (tingling, numbness, or burning pain in the hands, arms, feet, or legs)
  • Irritability
  • Sleep problems
  • Sexual dysfunction, such as erectile dysfunction (ED)

Intrigued by these reports, Dr. Golomb and a colleague reviewed 880 scientific studies on statin side effects, publishing their findings and conclusions in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Drugs. Here are the side effects you need to watch out for. Remember, it’s very likely your doctor doesn’t know or won’t acknowledge that statins can cause them.

•Cognitive problems. Memory loss, poor concentration, and slower reaction time “are sec ond only to muscle problems among reports of statin adverse effects,” wrote Dr. Golomb. In one study, people who took statins after open-heart surgery had much less recovery of lost cognitive function (a common side effect of the operation) than did people who didn’t take a statin.

•Diabetes. In a review of 20 studies on the link between statins and diabetes, Italian re searchers at the University of Milan found that the drug raised diabetes risk by 44 percent.

•Digestive problems. “Gastrointestinal adverse effects” were the most common side effect in an analysis of clinical trials of the drug, notes Dr. Golomb. Other studies link statins to serious digestive diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and stomach ulcers.

•Dry mouth. In a study from Spanish researchers, 23 of 26 patients on statins reported dry mouth (a common drug side effect). Others had oral itching, a bitter taste, and coughing. When statins were discontinued, these oral symptoms usually went away.

•Headaches. Several reports link statins to tension headaches and migraines.

•Insomnia. One study shows “significant reductions in average sleep quality” in people tak ing statins, compared with those taking a placebo.

•Personality changes. Dr. Golomb notes that there are many reports of “severe irritability” and “aggression” among statin takers. Her study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, that showed that people with very low cholesterol were twice as likely to commit violent crimes.

The possible cause: Cholesterol helps form healthy brain cells and is the main building block of many key mood-influencing hormones. Other “personality changes” that have been shown to start when statin use starts and stop when it stops: depression, anxiety, and paranoia.

•Kidney disease. Studies show that statin use can nearly triple the risk of decreased kidney function.

•Muscle pain, fatigue, and weakness. These are the problems from statins “most report ed” in the scientific literature and in patients, wrote Dr. Golomb. She’s not talking about a little soreness. She’s talking about pain, cramps, stiffness, tendinitis, pain when exercising, even difficulty walking. She points out that these muscle problems don’t necessarily stop when you stop the statin. If enough damage has been done, they can be persistent. The most extreme muscle problem is rhabdomyolysis, in which muscle breakdown in the body becomes so extreme and rapid the kidneys are overwhelmed by discarded muscle cells. The statin Baycor was taken off the market in 2001 after it was linked to more than 400 cases of rhabdomyolysis, 31 of them fatal.

•Peripheral neuropathy. A study by Danish researchers in the journal Neurology showed a 16-times-greater risk of developing this painful nerve disorder among people taking statins.

•Sexual dysfunction in men. There are at least five case studies in the scientific literature of erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems after taking a statin. (There are even three case studies of gynecomastia—abnormal breast development—in men on statins.) And one study, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and published in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology, found that men who took a statin had a “significant decrease” in their “erectile function.” Dr. Golomb points out that cholesterol is a precursor for testosterone and that “statins reduce testosterone in men.”

•Stroke. Statin use is linked to lower risk of ischemic stroke (83 percent of strokes, caused by a blood clot) in middle-aged people. But studies also link the drug to a 66 percent increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke (17 percent of strokes, caused by a burst blood vessel).

•Weight gain. People who take statins eat more calories and fat and gain more weight than people not taking the drug, according to Japanese researchers in JAMA: Internal Medicine.

How can one drug cause so many problems? Your body makes cholesterol for an important purpose: producing many of the hormones in your body. Block cholesterol and interfere with hormone production, and you create a body-wide disaster. In addition, blame the toxicity of statins on the loss of one crucial nutrient: coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10.

CoQ10—a biochemical sparkplug and antioxidant—is found in every cell of the body except red blood cells. Its key role is protecting and nourishing mitochondria, the tiny factories in every cell that manufacture cellular energy. Each heart cell, for example, is 40 percent mitochondria, because the heart requires so much energy to beat constantly and regularly.

Statins work by inhibiting the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase, which plays an important role in creating cholesterol and CoQ10. In other words, statins can and routinely do cause a CoQ10 deficiency. And when a drug interferes with a process so basic to cellular well-being, it can cause side effects in just about every system in the body. Statins do just that.

That’s the risk of statins. The benefits are exaggerated. Statins are effective in lowering cholesterol levels in just about everybody—the young and the old, men and women. But they only effectively decrease the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death from cardiovascular disease in people with a known history of heart disease (angina or heart attack). In this population, they can be lifesaving and I recommend them.

But in those without a history of heart disease who take statins—a use called primary prevention—the drug lowers death rates by less than two percent. To put that result in perspective…

  • Having thyroid hormone levels in the high versus the low part of the normal range is linked to a 69 percent lower risk of death from heart disease.
  • Taking the arthritis supplement glucosamine is linked to a 22 percent lower risk of death from heart disease.
  • Owning a cat is linked to a 30 percent lower risk of death from heart disease.

Basically, in my humble opinion, I consider the use of statins in most people without demonstrated heart disease to be a 17-billion-dollars-a-year scam.

Protecting Yourself

There are many ways to protect yourself from the side effects of statins.

  • Talk to your doctor—now! If you develop a side effect after taking a statin, talk to your doctor immediately—because the longer the side effect lasts, the longer it may take to go away.

My advice: Ask to go off the medication for three months to see if the side effect abates, and consider natural cholesterol-lowering alternatives.

  • Lower the dose. If you develop a side effect but do need a statin, talk to your doctor about lowering the dose. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that people with one or more side effects from a statin are less likely to experience the problem when put on a lower, but still effective, dose of the drug.

Preventing Drug Interactions

Medical research on drugs typically focuses on one medication. Is the medication effective or isn’t it? Does it cause side effects? If so, what are they?

But most people don’t take only one drug. Fifty-five percent of Americans take prescription medications—and most take an average of four drugs! And an estimated 15 percent of side effects aren’t caused by taking one drug, but by taking two or more at the same time. Those side effects are often caused by the two drugs interacting.

Drugs can interact in lots of ways, but the most common is that both drugs are metabolized (broken down) by the same limited supply of enzymes; neither is broken down sufficiently, and higher levels of the drugs circulate in the body, making a side effect more likely.

Don’t rely on your doctor to protect you. Your doctor has about six minutes to treat you. That’s enough time to write a prescription. But it’s not nearly enough time to stop a medication, which requires that the doctor review all the medications you’re taking. Plus, the doctor incurs a legal risk unless he can virtually guarantee that stopping the drug won’t cause any problems. And insurance isn’t likely to pay for stopping the medication—there’s no diagnostic code for that.

All these factors have led to an increasingly common problem, particularly among the senior set, who take the most drugs and are the most vulnerable to side effects—fatigue, depression, or confusion caused by multiple medications. If you’re 50 or older, taking multiple drugs, and suffering from any of those three symptoms, talk to your doctor about the possibility of safely and carefully weaning you off all noncritical medications, to see if your energy and mental clarity are restored. (Amazingly, it’s not uncommon to see what has mistakenly been diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease clear up when the medications are stopped.)

If you feel better after the drugs are stopped, you need to work with your physician and pharmacist to find different drugs or nondrug ways to protect your health. As you are weaned off your medications, I suspect you and your doctor will find you no longer really need them.

•Take coenzyme Q10. If you take a statin, I strongly urge you to talk to your doctor about taking a coenzyme Q10 supplement, which can help protect you from side effects and which is available in most health food stores and retail outlets that sell dietary supplements. I recommend 200 milligrams daily. Get a brand made by a well-established supplement company.

If you stop the medication (only with your physician’s approval), I recommend continuing to take coenzyme Q10 for three months for optimal mitochondrial repair.

•Watch out if you’re taking more than one drug. Be extra cautious when taking a statin and another drug, such as a blood pressure medication or antifungal. Those drugs and many others are broken down by the same set of liver enzymes that break down statins. When you take two drugs at the same time, less of the statin is broken down—in effect, you’re taking a higher dose of the statin, with a greater risk of side effects.

•Consider switching to red yeast rice. If you develop a side effect (particularly muscle pain), talk to your doctor about using cholesterol-lowering red yeast rice, the natural product from which synthetic statins were developed. Studies by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, show that this natural remedy is just as effective as statins, but much less likely to cause myalgia. The study doctors used a red yeast rice manufactured by Sylvan Bio, which is available at GNC’s online or retail stores, as Red Yeast Rice, from Traditional Supplements.

•Think about a nondrug approach. Consider a healthful diet, supplements, exercise, and other powerful LDL-lowering methods as an alternative to statins. I talk about these in Heart Disease on page 239. If your physician isn’t open to these types of natural alternatives, consider seeing a doctor who is board certified in holistic medicine.

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