Editor’s Note: The information contained is not intended to replace or supersede a doctor’s advice. Rather, all decisions to manage cholesterol should be made together with a supervising physician.
A major risk factor for heart disease, high cholesterol is the reason statins are one of the most commonly prescribed types of medications. Our ‘seek-a-quick-solution-culture’ puts pressure on medical professionals to do just that – prescribe a powerful drug to rapidly slash a person’s cholesterol. Although statins likely help a significant number of people maintain their cardiovascular health, these drugs are not the best solution for everyone. For many, combining several important lifestyle adaptations with a well-constructed heart health supplement is a better option for maintaining their cardiovascular wellness.
Cholesterol is a type of fat, an essential substance created and used by the body to keep us healthy. Simply stating someone has high cholesterol can be misleading because there is more to understanding cholesterol than one number. In general, a cholesterol test measures high density lipoproteins (HDL) and low density lipoproteins (LDL):
- HDL is known as good cholesterol.
- HDL helps keep the LDL (bad) cholesterol from getting lodged in artery walls.
- Good levels of HDL may protect against heart attack and stroke.
- Low levels of HDL (less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women) increases the risk of heart disease.
- LDL is known as bad cholesterol and can lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries.
- A plaque mass can narrow the arteries and restrict blood flow, impeding circulation.
- If a plaque ruptures and forms a blood clot, a heart attack or stroke can ensue.
Upon understanding the difference between HDL and LDL, the goal of treating cholesterol is obvious – to lower LDL while increasing HDL.
Regarding statins, Dr. Paul D. Thompson, director of cardiology at Hartford Hospital says, “they’re the most prescribed drugs in the world.” By blocking a substance your body needs to make cholesterol (HMG-CoA reductase), statins are drugs that can lower cholesterol. In addition to preventing its production, statins may also help the body reabsorb cholesterol that has built up in plaques on artery walls – adding additional support for preventing blood vessel blockages, strokes and heart attacks.
Commonly prescribed statins include:
- atorvastatin (Lipitor)
- simvastatin (Zocor)
- lovastatin (Mevacor)
- pravastatin (Pravachol)
- rosuvastatin (Crestor)
High cholesterol can often be lowered with an unrelenting commitment to several lifestyle adaptations; namely, eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding cigarette smoke and maintaining a healthy weight. For those who don’t benefit enough from these practices, statins may be a good addition. Despite their popularity and value in preventing heart disease, statins may not be a good choice for everyone concerned about their cholesterol. Once statins lower cholesterol, the drug is typically required to be taken indefinitely. In addition, long-term statin usage can have side effects, such as:
- Muscle and joint aches
- Nausea, diarrhea or constipation
- Liver damage
- Rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of muscle cells)
- Kidney damage
For many people, the side effects (whether mild or severe) combined with the long-term prospect of taking statins are enough to encourage other less harmful cholesterol management approaches.
Heart Health Supplement
As more Americans educate themselves on the downside of pharmaceutical use, the movement towards finding natural alternatives to drugs grows. Especially because choosing statin therapy is a permanent decision, a well-constructed heart health supplement to complement a healthy lifestyle is in demand. There are a wide range of natural substances that can help the body lower LDL and raise HDL without side effects, but some are more effective at improving cholesterol levels than others. The following natural ingredients have shown great promise in lowering cholesterol levels:
- Vitamin C – Besides being a well-known antioxidant that prevents cells from damage, vitamin C has also been dubbed ‘nature’s perfect statin.’ Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a natural HMg-CoA reductase inhibitor – serving the same basic function as a statin. When vitamin C levels are low, the body compensates and manufactures more cholesterol; when levels are high, the vitamin inhibits HMG-CoA reductase, lowering cholesterol.
- Beta Glucan – Dietary fiber is an essential part of a heart healthy diet, and oat fiber ranks at the top of this list. Researchers have discovered that beta-glucans are the major cholesterol-lowering agents in oat fiber. In fact, the FDA has allowed a “heart healthy” label claim for food products containing substantial amounts of beta-glucan. Experts believe that beta-glucan reduces cholesterol levels by increasing excretion of cholesterol from the digestive tract.
- Niacin – One of the B vitamins, niacin has been used for decades to increase HDL levels. Available as a prescription at high dosages, niacin can raise HDL cholesterol by 15 to 35 percent, making it highly effective.
- Phytosterols – Also known as plant sterols, phytosterols are cholesterol-like molecules found in plants. There have been many studies examining the cholesterol-lowering abilities of phytosterols, several indicating that up to two grams of phytosterols per day can lower LDL by 10 percent. As such, the FDA allows products containing phytosterols to be labeled as “heart healthy.”
In addition to the four compounds listed above, there are many more natural substances that can contribute to a healthy cholesterol profile such as policosanols, garlic, Vitamin B6 and B12, chromium and gum guggul. Those seeking an alternative to statins are encouraged to combine the all natural substances described above with the gold standards of lowering cholesterol: eating a heart healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding cigarette smoke and maintaining a healthful weight.
As the most prescribed drugs in the world, statins have become fixtures in medicine cabinets around the world. Unfortunately, the side effects of these drugs have also become commonplace. Our desire for a quick fix could direct people to statins before investigating other options. Diet, exercise, weight control and not smoking are always the first line of defense against high cholesterol. If that is not enough, some people may benefit from adding a heart healthy supplement to these lifestyle practices – before turning to the lifelong commitment of statin therapy.