Today’s Daily Mail headline announced the question “should all over 50s get anti-cholesterol drugs?” Normally statins are only prescribed to people who are considered to be at significant risk of a heart attack or stroke. In fact, it seems that these drugs can cut the risk of heart attack by 30% even in healthy people. So what are statins exactly? These are drugs that are known as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors. HMG-CoA is an enzyme that is involved in the production of cholesterol in the liver. Ruducing or inhibiting the function of this enzyme therefore prevents cholesterol production. Statins (usually synthetic) are similar to HMG-CoA and mimic the actions of this enzyme but prevent the pathway progressing to the production of cholesterol and more than six million adults in the UK use them.
So far so good, until I open up the paper to page two where I am met with the words “although side effects are rare, they can include muscle pain and damage to the liver and kidneys.” I guess this is what infuriates me. With the majority of pharmaceuticals there will be the downside list of side effects or contraindications that steal some of the glamour from a treatment programme. Take NSAIDs, for example; these are common over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, like Ibubrofen.
Whilst one of the most common over-the-counter drugs and used by millions, NSAIDs are associated with several side effects, of which many are probably not known by the common user. Whilst the frequency of side effects varies among NSAIDs, the most common side effects are nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, rash, dizziness and headache (interesting that we often take them when we have a headache!). NSAIDs may also cause fluid retention, leading to oedema. The most serious side effects are kidney failure, liver failure, ulcers, an increased risk of heart attack and prolonged bleeding after an injury or surgery.
So why is it that if there is a natural alternative which we can take for both of these drugs and without the associated side effects, that we are not advised? Let me speak firstly about cholesterol. In the 1970s Danish researchers discovered that in spite of their high-cholesterol, high-fat, diet Greenland Eskimos had an astonishingly low incidence of cardiovascular disease (as well as arthritis and other chronic inflammatory diseases). When analysing blood samples it was discovered that they had low levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and low levels of VLDL (triglyceride), but high levels of HDL (good cholesterol). It appeared that their high intake of omega-3 was responsible for this low risk of heart disease. Since this research emerged, much focus has been centred on the role of omega-3 fatty acids and, more recently, specifically the role of EPA in lowering cholesterol levels. EPA reduces cholesterol production by inhibiting the activity of another enzyme called acyl-CoA but without the side effects associated with statins. EPA also acts as an anti-inflammatory in a similar mechanism to that of NSAIDs, but again without the side effects. So my message today is to boost your EPA levels on a long-term basis and you may well lower the possibilities of having to resort to pharmaceuticals with all sorts of side effects.
Increase your fish intake and adopt a more Eskimo-like diet! For those who don’t like fish, you can opt for a high-EPA supplement. Purified fish oils actually are a useful alternative to oily fish consumption and, unlike most oily fish, are contamination-free.