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3 Prescription Drugs That Do More Harm Than Good

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Cholesterol Conundrum

The rise in widespread use of statins coincided with lifestyle changes in post–World War II America. As the population gradually migrated to car-friendly suburbs and became increasingly sedentary, the food industry began filling supermarket shelves with more processed “convenience” foods packed with high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats and other pro-inflammatory ingredients. Before long, coronary heart disease (CHD) became a major cause of death.

Despite an increasingly clear connection between diet and heart disease, pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s saw a burgeoning market for a class of drugs called statins, which block production of LDL in the liver, reducing its levels in the blood. And, by 1994, they had the research they needed to argue that these drugs could prevent heart disease.

The Scandinavian Simvastatin Survival Study, sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Merck, showed that the cholesterol-inhibiting drug, simvastatin (brand name: ZOCOR), could lower LDL levels by 25 to 35 percent and reduce myocardial infarction (heart attack) by 25 to 30 percent in those with normal cholesterol but who have other risk factors, like hypertension, smoking or diabetes.

Conquer High Cholesterol Naturally

With the advent of statins, our Big Mac nation was given license to stay the course: We kept consuming processed foods through the rollout of lovastatin, simvastatin and atorvastatin — otherwise known as Lipitor — which for many years has been the top-selling drug in the world. Just last year, rosuvastatin (brand name: Crestor) was approved as a preventive for healthy individuals with low cholesterol counts and no risk factor beyond an elevated level of C-reactive protein (CRP), a sign of inflammation in the body. Once prescribed statins, these people were advised to take them for life.

That’s when cardiologists and epidemiologists adept at reading statistics finally began breaking ranks. Their concerns about statins’ side effects were well placed. A study published in The Lancet in February 2010 showed statins could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes by 9 percent. Other recent studies have traced statins to headache, joint pain and abdominal pain, as well as linked the drugs to peripheral neuropathy, the sense of tingling and numbness or burning pain, often in arms and legs.

At UCSD, Golomb has been studying a series of lesser-known (but not less common) neuropsychiatric and cognitive side effects. Her interest began when, as a medical student in the late 1980s, she became aware of two studies linking cholesterol-lowering drugs to violent death. “In these studies, the decrease in death from heart disease was fully offset by increases in violent death from suicide, homicide and accident,” she says. Golomb’s neurobiology research told her the reports made sense. “Cholesterol is a very high fraction of the dry weight of the brain,” she says, and aids the function of neurotransmitters — the molecules of emotion and cognition that help the brain do its job. Force cholesterol levels down by artificial means, and brain infrastructure suffers. Her own paper on low cholesterol and violence was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 1998.

As word got out, Golomb’s lab received a steady stream of email from statin users with a wide range of problems neither reflected in the literature nor taken seriously by their doctors. The effects, documented in her multiyear study, include reduced energy and a lack of interest in activity, increased fatigue after exercise, erectile dysfunction, and a significant reduction in the ability to achieve orgasm. “Half the people who reported any symptom reported more than one,” Golomb adds.

This reflects what the evidence shows — a common mechanism based on statin disruption of the mitochondria, the energy-producing parts of cells. “We are conditioned to think of cholesterol as a nefarious substance that courses through the blood for the sole purpose of congealing in our arteries and causing cardiovascular disease, but there is a reason why evolution mandates that every cell in our body produces it, and that it circulate through our blood,” Golomb says.

So what’s a statin-taker to do? If you are experiencing troublesome side effects, but have heart disease or serious risk factors and can’t stop taking the drugs entirely, you may still want to consider taking a brief break from the med to see if it seems to be causing your symptoms. If so, you should ask your doctor to prescribe a different drug or lower your dose.

If you’ve been prescribed the drugs prophylactically, it may be time to talk with your doctor about getting off statins entirely. According to internist and clinical pharmacologist James M. Wright, MD, PhD, professor at the University of British Columbia, statins have no proven net health benefit as a preventive. As managing director and chair of the Therapeutics Initiative, a group that evaluates drug studies in Canada, Wright is an expert on meta-analyses — the large “studies of studies” — that take every last bit of data into account. His latest review of the data — and the most comprehensive to date — was published in the Therapeutics Letter in 2010: “Statins do not have a proven net health benefit in primary prevention populations,” he wrote, adding that the “claimed mortality benefit” for this group is “more likely a measure of bias than a real effect.”

The data is especially murky for people with elevated cholesterol but no other risk factors. “This is a gray area,” he notes. In short, there’s little credible evidence that attempting to lower a high cholesterol count with drugs is beneficial unless other risks are elevated as well.

Walter Willett, MD, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, adds that even for those who need the drug, “statins only reduce risk of heart disease modestly, about 30 percent, and thus are not sufficient.” Lifestyle changes (see “Many Problems, One Cure,” page 65) are required to take patients the rest of the way. For many, making the right lifestyle changes is all that’s required.

Next: Halting Hypertension

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Megan, selected from Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

391 comments

+ add your own
2:15AM PDT on Jun 21, 2013

thanks for the informative article. The statins i have used in the past has left me a legacy of sore muscles to really really painful muscles especially in my thighs. Im sick to death of taking drugs and sick to death with dealing with issues assoc. with them. I am very sensitive to drugs and have tried quite a few, chopping and changing, to no avail. Clearly I cant be the only one, can I? I dont think so. When you stop statins your muscles are still effected which when I first started them wasnt told about. Nice Huh?

1:42AM PDT on Jun 6, 2013

Great info. I agree, there are way too many medicines that we should do our homework on. Thanks for sharing!

3:19AM PDT on May 16, 2013

Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

6:56AM PDT on May 14, 2013

thanks for posting

6:25AM PDT on Apr 18, 2013

thanks

4:07PM PDT on Apr 17, 2013

Prescription drugs are poison virtually nothing can't be cured with proper diet and exercise,vaccines serve only weaken your immune system,big pharma starts poisoning you at birth with them.I am 41 yrs old and have never been to a doctor other than the forced stuff in the military I exercise almost daily and eat right take a few supplements I haven't had so much as cold in 20 yrs. I whole hearted believe its from allowing my body to heal itself rather than taking there pills,I take q10 C ,B, supplements yr round and D in the winter,also use a mix of peppermint speariment and almond oils for tooth brushing and haven't been to dentist in 20 yrs. The last 4 yrs or so I've been organic juicing atleast one drink a day,do a 5 day partial juice fast (eat 1 plain salad a day during)once a month to cleanse myself of the red meat and pork I can't give up.Man survived thousands of yrs. Without there pills and vaccines.

12:57PM PDT on Apr 17, 2013

continued:

food is also medicine and we need to educate ourselves about this and use this as well as part of our healthcare. It is too bad this is not incorporated as part of our general education from K-12 and beyond, perhaps it will be some day.

12:54PM PDT on Apr 17, 2013

The majority of our doctors have been trained in "allopathic" or "standard" medicine and they have been taught to use pharmaceutical drugs to manage health problems. This is what they know. They have not been trained in in natural alternative medications or medical treatments and therefore do not feel confident or comfortable in using or prescribing them. This does not make them demons, it's simply a matter of how they have been trained and the kind of knowledge they have been given. There are a few exceptions of doctors who will incorporate both types of treatment, but they are few and far between and very hard to find. Insurance companies do not want to pay for alternative medical practitioners or treatments, which further compunds the problem, and since insurance companies will not pay for these things you have to pay for them yourself. We have to be very proactive in being our own health care advocates, do the research on the drugs being prescribed to us, do the research on the natural alternatives, and figure out what seems to be the safest and most effective treatment. However herbal and natural remedies also have natural chemical properties (which is why they work) and you need to have some knowledge of how to use them safely, what are safe and effective doses, and which ones not to combine, or not to use at all if you have certain health issues, etc. Nutrition also plays a big part in our health, food is also medicine and we need to educate ourselves about thi

12:04PM PDT on Apr 17, 2013

Thank you SOOO much for this outstanding article! I was given statins for a couple of years for high cholesterol which I was told was of a hereditary nature, and had so many problems because of them. Severe and constant muscle aches and pains, rise in blood pressure, rise in blood sugar, numbness tingling and severe pain in my feet, charley horses in my legs every day, memory problems, eventually became diagnosed with pre-diabetes, had blood in my urine (due to the muscle breakdown caused by the statins). After doing some research discovered all of these things to be side effects of taking statins. My question to my doctor was, if they cause the breakdown of the muscle tissues, and the heart is a muscle, how is this "protecting" my heart and it is worth the damage being done to my body overall? And the statins did not even do much to reduce the cholesterol levels! I have since gone off the statins and all of the above problems have disappeared. I have always been extremely leary of pharmacuetical drugs, they seem to alleviate one symptom ( nor cure the CAUSE) and cause many other problems in addition to the original one. I am a huge advocate of dietary changes and natural herbal and other natural suppliments. I now use Red Rice Yeast in place of the statin, fish oil, and CoQ10 and have never felt better! Thank you so much for teling the truth about these drugs!

2:17PM PST on Nov 29, 2012

Thanks

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people are talking

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