Busting the Cholesterol MythJan 29, 2013 01:13PM ● By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C.
What do you know about cholesterol besides what you’ve been hearing for years: that it’s something really bad for you.
Is it really?
I’ll bet you didn’t know that your body continually makes cholesterol because it needs it to convert sunlight to vitamin D, and to produce sex hormones, vitally protective semi-permeable membranes for your trillions of cells, and bile salts for digestion. Even your brain makes cholesterol, and uses it to build connections between the neurons that facilitate learning and memory.
Contrary to all the negative publicity, our bodies are programmed to function with cholesterol. It’s a basic and natural raw material.
But that’s not the way most people think about cholesterol. They indeed regard it as something truly bad: the hitman of cardiovascular disease. So bad that if a simple blood test shows that your cholesterol has reached a certain level, your doctor will quickly pull out his prescription pad and write you a prescription for a statin, a cholesterol-lowering drug, whether you have heart disease or not. The practice has become so widespread that today statin drugs represent a blockbuster $30 billion-a-year business for the pharmaceutical industry.
I used to think that cholesterol was bad, that it had to be lowered to protect heart health. I was a true believer. So much so, in fact, that I lectured other doctors on behalf of major statin manufacturers, and got paid for it. I believed that “high cholesterol” was the big, bad villain of heart disease.
My thinking changed years ago. I began seeing conflicting evidence among my own patients and then in the medical research. I saw, for instance, patients with low total cholesterol – as low as 130 mg/dL − develop heart disease! Mainstream medicine considers 200 as the borderline between “high” and “normal.” My patients were telling me something different than the establishment message.
Faced with discrepancies, I began questioning and investigating. I found other doctors here and there who had made similar discoveries on their own, and heard how research was being manipulated. Biochemist George Mann of Vanderbilt University − who participated in the original Framingham heart disease study decades ago that helped spawn the cholesterol story —later described the whole thing as “the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the American Public.” Such dissenting voices are typically drowned out by a perennial torrent of research, often sponsored and promoted by drug makers, in support of lowering cholesterol and the drugs that do so.
Still, I found many studies that shredded my earlier belief. For instance, studies showing that the French had the highest cholesterol levels in Europe − about 250 − but also the lowest incidence of heart disease. On the Greek island of Crete, one ten-year-study failed to register a single heart attack despite an average cholesterol well over 200.
I learned that half of all heart attacks occur in people with “normal” total cholesterol. This was reported in an eye-opening 1996 article by the then director of the Framingham study research group, Dr. William Castelli.
For more than ten years now, research has also been producing considerable evidence showing that it is inflammation of arterial tissue that leads to heart disease and most strokes. In this complex biochemical scenario that creates damage in the arterial walls, and then plaque, occlusions, and clots, cholesterol plays a role but in no way a leading role. Put in simple terms: you find cholesterol at the scene of arterial destruction. It is a participant in the crime. But it is not the perpetrator.
Yet the word cholesterol remains for most people synonymous with death and disease. In this country we have even created a non-existent disease called hypercholesteremia − high cholesterol − and government health agencies and the long-arm of the pharmaceutical industry’s PR machine continue to inundate the public about how bad it is, as well as how bad saturated fat is. The tragedy here is that this myth – the whole cholesterol and saturated fat story − keeps the public fixed on fabricated issues and leaves the real causes of heart disease largely ignored: inflammation, oxidation, sugar, and stress.
Because of this situation, I decided to do what I could to try and help educate the public. I’ve written a dozen books about heart health over the years, and now it was time to write another one, this time targeting the cholesterol and saturated fat myth. The result is The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why Lowering Your Cholesterol Won't Prevent Heart Disease and the Statin-Free Plan That Will (Fair Winds Press, 2012). The book, co-authored with well-known nutritional expert Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., is packed with powerful research, expert opinions, and combined clinical experience that paints a whole different picture.
We wrote the book to counteract what we strongly believe to be a conspiratorial combination of misinformation, scientifically-questionable studies, corporate greed, and deceptive marketing.
In our book, Dr. Bowden explains how, at the beginning of his career, which started as a personal trainer for a major New York City health club, he had vigorously promoted the low-fat mantra to his clients. Yet he soon found that clients did better on diets with ample fat, a conclusion I similarly reached in my own clinical experience and research. We both read some of the same studies that put additional doubts into our minds and independently led us to believe that most cardiovascular problems had nothing to do with lowering cholesterol and eliminating saturated fat.
Over the years we both learned from Mary Enig, Ph.D., a former editor of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, and a leading lipid biochemist, that there was little to fear from saturated fats in the diet. The real fat felon in the diet, she has correctly identified, is trans fat, a processed unsaturated fat that potently raises the risk of heart disease. Trans fats are inflammatory, and found commonly in fried and snack foods, baked goods, and frozen dinners. You’re likely familiar with the term hydrogenated oil on many foods labels. That’s a trans fat and should be avoided.
Dr. Bowden, like me, looked for strategies that seemed to work for the healthiest, longest-living people on earth. We both found that lowering cholesterol has almost nothing to do with reducing heart disease, and definitely nothing to do with extending life. Only a tiny minority of patients live longer by taking cholesterol drugs, another fact unfortunately lost on the multitude of mainstream doctors prescribing them at record-setting levels. In the book we quote one of the world’s foremost cholesterol debunkers, Swedish researcher Uffe Ravnskov, M.D., Ph.D.: “People with high cholesterol live the longest. This statement seems so incredible that it takes a long time to clear one’s brainwashed mind to fully understand its importance.”
The introduction to our book was written by Michael and Mary Eades, both medical doctors who authored Protein Power and other important diet books. They bemoan the sad fact that tens of thousands of doctors today succumb to “group think” to treat a non-existent disease – elevated cholesterol – with drugs that are far from benign. It’s similar, they say, to the nonsensical pursuit of healing in the past with leeches and bloodletting.
Our book is a search for the truth, and I am confident that we found it. We cite major scientific research routinely ignored by the medical system, such as a recent study showing that almost half of nearly 140,000 patients admitted to hospitals for heart disease had LDL cholesterol levels under 100 mg/dl (the current mainstream therapeutic target for LDL). You would think such a result would cause some reflection. It didn’t. Instead, the researchers concluded that maybe an even lower target is needed. Such is the reigning insanity that we hope to counteract with our book. Another inconvenient fact is that a total cholesterol level of 160 mg/dL or less, has been linked to depression, aggression, cerebral hemorrhages, and loss of sex drive!
Obviously, your brain and body need cholesterol.
Our book has started to make ripples. We have appeared on popular national TV and radio health shows, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re spreading the word and trying to bury an entrenched myth. For more information, please visit my website HeartMDInstitute.com.
Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C. (Fellow of American College of Cardiology), F.A.C.N. (Fellow of American College of Nutrition) is a board-certified cardiologist and certified psychotherapist with forty years of clinical experience treating, preventing and reversing heart disease. He is also certified in anti-aging medicine and nutrition. Dr. Sinatra’s clinical focus has been integrating conventional medical treatments for heart disease with complementary nutritional, anti-aging, and psychological therapies to counteract the inflammation and plaque processes that cause heart attacks and strokes. He is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, and a former chief of cardiology and medical education at Manchester Memorial Hospital in Connecticut. A prolific author, Dr. Sinatra has written numerous books, including his current bestseller The Great Cholesterol Myth (Fair Winds Press, 2012). He is also host of the Internet’s leading integrative cardiology website for the public, HeartMDInstitute.com.