Like some of my patients, you may be taking a “statin” – a type of medication designed to lower too-high cholesterol. Statins – a name derived from the last part of their generic drug names like simvastatin, atorvastatin, rosuvastatin, pravastatin, et al – have been considered ‘wonder drugs’ for the last decade because of their benefits in lowering cholesterol and decreasing risk of heart attack and stroke.
However, more and more the risks of these types of drugs are surfacing making even previous all-out supporters in the medical field question their widespread usage. If you take a statin, here are some recently discovered downsides of them that you’ll want to ask your doctor about.
Statin Risks: An Ever-Growing List
In recent weeks, the Food and Drug Administration added safety alerts to prescribing information for statins which warned of newly accepted side effects of these drugs including diabetes, muscle fatigue and pain, and memory loss. These are added to an already fairly large list of side effects.
Diabetes. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in January of this year cited the increasing risk link between statin users and the development of diabetes – especially in postmenopausal women. The risk was not just in one specific statin drug, rather it was found to likely be a ‘medication class effect’ that involved all types of statins. In the 153,000 participants studied – women aged 50-79, more than 10,000 cases of diabetes were found. Researchers concluded that vigilant testing for diabetes should be done in patients on statins and that patients should be on the lookout for symptoms of diabetes that include:
- Increased thirst and urination
- Blurred vision
- Weight gain or sudden weight loss
Muscle Pain/Fatigue: In another study, researchers in Strasbourg, France recently tested one statin, Lipitor, on a group of rats for 2 weeks and measured their exercise response against another non-medicated group of rats. The rats were tested for exercise tolerance by running on treadmills until exhaustion. It was immediately apparent that the rats receiving Lipitor could not run as far. They reached exhaustion much earlier than the non-medicated rats.
In addition, when the muscle tissues of these same runner rats were tested on the cellular level, it was found that the rats receiving Lipitor had 226% more oxidative stress – a process that causes cell damage. These rats also had less stored sugar in their muscles and the mitochondria – the energy center of the muscle cell – showed dysfunction. These rats also had 25% less respiratory capacity. Researchers concluded that it was possible that statins increase muscle damage in humans and interfere with the body’s capability of repairing that damage. Happily, though these muscle effects stop, however, when the statin is stopped. These findings present a Catch-22 kind of problem as people who take statins are at high risk for cardiovascular and stroke events and could benefit the most from regular exercise. Statin use, however, would likely limit their ability to tolerate exercise on a regular basis from associated muscle pain and fatigue.
Memory Loss: Another study published in March 2012 cited statins as increasing the risk of memory loss. Researchers looked into a growing body of consumer complaints that noted short-term memory loss after a few months of starting statins, or increasing their dosage. Global and partial amnesia was also reported. All but one of these reported complaints involved atorvastatin and simvastatin. Studies revealed that the more fat soluble the statin is (simvastatin the most, pravastatin the least), the greater risk it has of crossing the blood-brain barrier and affecting brain and central nervous system function. In some cases, the memory loss returned after stopping the statin and in other cases did not. The lowest cases of memory loss were with pravastatin usage. It was thought that perhaps lower cholesterol levels in brain neurons accounted for the loss. Other researchers disagreed and felt statins were protective against dementia.
Statins: The Baby and The Bath Water?
Statins have been in use for the last two decades and, for the most part, have been successful in doing what they’re intended to do – lower cholesterol and protect against cardiovascular disease and stroke. Statins stabilize plaque in arteries by softening them and preventing ruptures. They have an anti-inflammatory effect by lowering C-reactive protein (CRP) markers and preventing stroke. Statins may even be protective against dementia by decreasing amyloid plaques in the brain – a condition almost always found in dementia and Alzheimer patients. Recently, statins have also been credited with lowering a man’s risk of dying from prostate cancer by 2/3 and that statin users, in general, have a 14% to 28% lower risk of developing cancer. Statins, researchers believe, may be able to slow the growth of prostate, bladder, and breast cancer but this has largely been unproved as of yet.
As I advise my patients, statins can be very useful drugs but their side effects can be concerning. You may want to try some natural cholesterol-lowering methods instead. However, do not abruptly stop taking your statins. Tell your doctor and he can wean you off your statins while instituting a more natural approach.
These include: niacin, a B vitamin 250 mg, 3 times a day; delta-tocotrienol form of vitamin E, 100 mg; fish or krill oil (with 300 mg DHA and 450 mg of EPA); eating more phytosterols (beans, nuts, seeds), oats and flax to increase fiber and sweep cholesterol out of the bowel. Regular exercise will help reduce cholesterol as well.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Statins and Prostate Cancer http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/statins-and-prostate-cancer.shtml
Statin Associated Memory Loss, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/458867_4
Statin Medications and Increased Risk for Diabetes Mellitus, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/756688
photo credit: painneck.com