Controlling cholesterol: why statins may not be the answer.

Statins, also known as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, work by preventing the pathway to cholesterol production and are generally prescribed for individuals who are at high risk of heart attack or stroke. It seems that, even in healthy people, these drugs can cut the risk of heart attack by around 30%. Good news, you’d think, considering more than six million adults in the UK currently use them to help control cholesterol levels.

However, it would appear that the story is not quite so black and white; it wasn’t too long ago that I commented on a Daily Mail story highlighting the worrying side effects associated with the use of statins for reducing cholesterol. Not only do statins come with side effects that include muscle pain and damage to the liver and kidneys, it is becoming apparent that they may also cause memory loss and depression.

Strange, then, that these drugs are so commonly prescribed when there are natural ways of keeping cholesterol levels in check. Given the overwhelming evidence for the protective role that long-chain omega-3s play in cardiovascular health, it amazes me that this information is not passed on more readily by GPs to their patients. With the huge costs to the NHS for treating cardiovascular disease in secondary care, wouldn’t it be more cost efficient to educate people on preventative methods?

Omega-3 fatty acids not only reduce cholesterol, but can lower triglyceride levels, blood pressure, improve blood flow and reduce the risk of arrhythmia (the abnormal heartbeat that can increase risk of heart failure). Whilst eating oily fish is a good way of increasing omega-3 levels for heart health, supplementation with purified oils is a convenient way of achieving the therapeutic doses needed (which are often as much as 2-4g) to treat specific conditions such as hypercholesterolaemia (very high cholesterol) or hypertriglyceridaemia (very high trigycerides).

The type of fat in our diets needs to be addressed. Dietary fat plays a huge role in the development of cardiovascular disease. Our increased intake of junk food and heavily processed foods means that we consume amounts of saturated and trans fats that are detrimental to our health and these limited food choices are becoming normal for the next generation, as parents are making fewer food choices for their children. Making relatively simple dietary changes can have profound effects on our health and the habits we adopt now will be reflected in those we pass to our children. Choosing fat wisely, moderating saturated fat intake and increasing polyunsaturated fat at an early age may well help our own and our children’s passage to good health long-term, without the risk of side effects from prescribed drugs.