What is Cholesterol and What Does Cholesterol Do in the Body?
“Everyone” knows cholesterol is “bad” – which is why you should think twice about going along with what “everyone” thinks. Cholesterol is not good or bad – unless it's oxidized (damaged). Then it can cause problems. Otherwise it's just a specific form of lipid (fat). Some studies have even shown that people with high cholesterol levels live longer.
In truth, cholesterol is absolutely essential to good health and used for many functions in your body.
Does Eating Cholesterol Raise Cholesterol Levels?
For some time, eating foods high in cholesterol has been demonized in the United States. Now the tide is finally turning, as multiple studies have shown that dietary cholesterol has little impact on blood cholesterol levels. As noted below, 85% of the cholesterol in the body is produced in the liver.
The study, “Rethinking dietary cholesterol” notes:
The European countries, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Korea and India among others do not have an upper limit for cholesterol intake in their dietary guidelines. Further, existing epidemiological data have clearly demonstrated that dietary cholesterol is not correlated with increased risk for CHD.
Your Body Uses Cholesterol for:
- Making vitamin D from sunlight, helping to preserve strong bones and boost your immune system
- Making sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, so we can reproduce
- Creating cell membranes and coating nerves with a protective fatty layer that makes up 60-80% of our brain. (This is likely why cholesterol lowering drugs have been linked to dementia.)
- Essential for proper food digestion and fat absorption (and fat soluble vitamin absorption, such as vitamin A, D, E and K) because cholesterol produces bile salts
- Acting as an anti-inflammatory in the body, working to repair damage due to stress, poor diet, toxin exposure and other other health challenges
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) takes cholesterol from the body tissues back to the liver. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL – so called “bad” cholesterol) takes cholesterol from the liver out to the rest of the body. As Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue says in the book Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox, “blaming cholesterol for heart disease is a lot like blaming firefighters for a fire“.
In most people, our livers produce about 85 percent of the cholesterol in our bodies, and 15 percent comes from diet. This is why switching to a low cholesterol diet is not generally an effective way of reducing cholesterol. Instead, we should look at ways to reduce the inflammation, i.e., put out the fire, to help our bodies heal and reduce cholesterol naturally.
Side Effects of Statin Medication
Statin medications work by reducing the liver's ability to produce cholesterol. Sometimes this produces a rebound effect when cholesterol levels get too low (remember, we need cholesterol), which triggers the liver to produce more cholesterol, which leads to an increased dose of the medication and so on. But what happens when you shut down the body's ability to produce cholesterol? Use of statin medication has been linked to:
Muscle Pain and Weakness
The most common complaint associated with statin use is muscle pain and weakness. People find themselves unable to get out of bed, unable to walk or climb stairs, or simply plagued with muscle pain and soreness.
In rare cases, Mayo Clinic notes that “statins can cause life-threatening muscle damage called rhabdomyolysis (rab-doe-mi-OL-ih-sis). Rhabdomyolysis can cause severe muscle pain, liver damage, kidney failure and death. Rhabdomyolysis can occur when you take statins in combination with certain drugs or if you take a high dose of statins.”
Decreased Cognitive Function/Memory Loss
Julian Whitaker, MD reports in the article “Statins: Bad for the Brain” reports that ” Hundreds of cases of statin-induced memory loss and TGA (transient global amnesia) have been reported to MedWatch, the FDA’s system for filing adverse drug events.” People can't concentrate, they can't remember, they can't focus – basically, the brain starts severely malfunctioning.
Dr. Mercola notes that the most common adverse drug reaction due to statins received by the Swedish Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee from 1988-2010 was drug induced liver damage. This liver damage was linked to death from acute liver failure, liver transplantation and jaundice.
Health Day News reports that, “(Study) participants who took higher doses of statins were 34 percent more likely to be hospitalized for acute kidney injury during the first 120 days of treatment, compared to their counterparts who were taking lower doses. This risk remained elevated two years after starting treatment. The findings appeared online March 19 in the journal BMJ.” Please see your health care provider if you have dark urine, difficulty urinating or less frequent urination.
Statin medications have been shown to deplete Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) levels in the body. Both your skeletal muscles and your heart muscles need CoQ10, but your heart may need as much as 200 times more CoQ10 than your skeletal muscles. Elderly people, who are most commonly prescribed statins, also typically have the highest risk of low levels of CoQ10. Put all this together, and it's no surprise that statin therapy has been shown to decrease myocardial (heart) function.
Decreased effectiveness of exercise
Both statins and exercise should reduce your health risks – in theory. Researchers recently tested a group of volunteers on an exercise regime combined with a statins. Half the volunteers used a statin, half did not. The study found that: “The unmedicated volunteers improved their aerobic fitness significantly after three months of exercise, by more than 10 percent on average. But the volunteers taking the statins gained barely 1 percent on average in their fitness, and some possessed less aerobic capacity at the end of the study than at its start.”
The list of potential statin side effects goes on and on – digestive issues, rash or flushing, increased risk of type 2 diabetes… It's no wonder that many people who try statin medications to control cholesterol stop taking them. As I mentioned above, half of people who have heart attacks do not have high cholesterol levels.
I hope this post has helped you to realize just how important cholesterol is for our bodies, and how many side effects statin drugs can have. Remember that oxidized (damaged) cholesterol is more of a problem than high cholesterol. Look to reduce inflammation so that your body doesn't need to produce excess cholesterol to fight inflammation – don't attack the firefighters for trying to put out the fire!
There are alternatives to statin medication. Please Share this post to help get the word out!
Originally published in 2014, updated in 2017.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any illness. Please work with your health care provider to address any health concerns you may have.
New Guidelines for Preventing Heart Attack, Stroke
New cholesterol guidelines: The statin decision lies with patients
What you need to know about cardiovascular disease
It's Not Dementia, It's Your Heart Medication: Cholesterol Drugs and Memory – Why cholesterol drugs might affect memory at Scientific American
The Benefits of High Cholesterol
Can Statins Cut the Benefits of Exercise?
Intake and time dependence of blueberry flavonoid-induced improvements in vascular function: a randomized, controlled, double-blind, crossover intervention study with mechanistic insights into biological activity.
Statins: Bad for the Brain
High-Dose Statins Linked to Acute Kidney Damage – Large study doesn't prove connection, but experts say patients should ask doctors about concerns
Can Statin Drug use Cause Your Liver and Heart to Fail
Statin side effects: Weigh the benefits and risks
Statin therapy decreases myocardial function as evaluated via strain imaging
Coenzyme Q10 and Statin-Induced Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Risks of statin drugs for cholesterol
Cat Owners Have Lower Heart Attack Risk, Study
Cholesterol Guide: Exercise tips
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Apples Significantly Lower LDL Cholesterol Levels In Older Women
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New Study Supports Cholesterol-Lowering Effects of Garlic
WebMD: Find a Supplement – Garlic
Dr. Weil's High Cholesterol Condition Care Guide