How one popular heart drug went so wrong
Once upon a time it seemed medical technology was evolving in a better direction. Moving toward honoring the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm.” Indeed, it seemed that we were beginning to choose less harmful treatment options over more harmful ones.
For example, if you could take a drug to manage heart disease, wouldn’t that be better than being subjected to open-heart surgery?
But of course it wasn’t that simple. As all doctors learn when studying pharmacology, any drug can have any effect. For something to act as a drug, it first has to be absorbed, be carried in the blood, enter the cells, and be able to bind to the cells to have an effect. In this process, other side effects of drugs are to be expected.
The flip side of pharmacology
Unfortunately, medical schools don’t dig deeper into drugs in pharmacology courses. If they did, more doctors would get some important insights.
Drugs used to be based primarily on plant chemicals from nature. And biological organisms (like humans) are already adapted to obtaining nutrients and medicines from botanical sources. But pharmacology continues to get farther and farther away from natural approaches, as I’ll illustrate in a moment.
Toxicology is the field of studying poisons. In some ways poisons are similar to drugs—they have to be absorbed, enter the circulation, and be able to get into cells in order to have an effect.
The difference is, poisons act by disrupting the normal processes that cells carry out. They disrupt your metabolism.
But most doctors don’t know as much about poisons. In fact, unless they had a special interest or pursued training in forensic medicine (like I did), they did not learn anything about toxicology in medical school.
That’s unfortunate, since some newer drugs are turning out to test our toxicology knowledge as much as our pharmacology knowledge.
Which brings us back to heart disease…
I mentioned that the medical establishment promised heart health through drugs instead of surgery. These drugs are called statins.
The theoretical appeal of the statin drugs is that they lower cholesterol. But we’re now learning that statins were the wrong approach…to the wrong problem. Plus, these drugs are turning out to be metabolic poisons.
Debunking the cholesterol myth
If you’re still counting cholesterol in your food, you’re wasting your time. You wouldn’t know it from the medical establishment, but there’s absolutely no relationship between food cholesterol and blood cholesterol.
But it’s still worth getting your cholesterol levels checked, right? Maybe not. In animal studies, including primate studies, only very weak connections have been found between cholesterol and heart disease.
I knew this as far back as medical school. In fact, I vividly recall taking a course at the veterinary school when I was a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. I used to take courses at the vet school because, frankly, veterinary medicine kept a stronger connection to real biology and ecology in terms of health and disease.
In fact, animals continue to receive better care from veterinarians in terms of nutrition and so-called complementary/alternative therapies than people are getting from physicians.
But back to cholesterol…
I can still see pathologist Dr. Herbert Ratcliffe shaking his head about the “new” interest in cholesterol as a key to heart health in humans. Because he knew all the studies that had already been done in animals disproved any real cause and effect. In the meantime, Dr. Mark Hegstead from Harvard came to give a special lecture showing that cholesterol in foods had nothing to do with cholesterol in blood. And this was all known in the 1970s!
So why the confusion?
The body makes its own cholesterol, which is a wholly natural substance. It is a building block of cells and hormones for the body. Cholesterol has many important functions in the body, including helping repair injuries. After an injury, one of the body’s first reactions is to naturally increase cholesterol levels.
But that’s not true in people who are on statin drugs. Statins lower cholesterol by poisoning a normal and necessary enzyme in the body called HMG-CoA reductase. The poisoned cells can’t produce as much cholesterol.
When Merck came out with the first cholesterol drug, Mevacor, it was heralded as a great achievement. Careers were secured, fortunes made, corporate profits assured, and buildings built to honor the discoverers.
At about the same time, some doctors (like myself) were telling the world that we believed in the power of complementary medicine. That we believed the wise use of nutrition and natural medicine could “complement” the drug-dominated practice of human medicine.
And one prime use for complementary medicine, we knew, would be to help counteract the “known and accepted” side effects of drugs.
These natural substances support normal metabolism, especially when the body is bombarded with drugs that interfere with normal metabolism.
If the high quality and scientific standards of the pharmaceutical industry could be applied to the “wild west” of the U.S. natural products industry, we knew it would benefit consumers.
For example, I recommend Metfolin®, Merck’s pharmaceutical grade folic acid, as a reliable, high- quality source. Another example is coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which helps reduce the toxic effects of statins.
We knew Merck was one of the great science-based pharmaceutical companies. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised to discover Merck had already taken out a patent on a CoQ10 and Mevacor combo.
However, the combination treatment was not made available to the public. We thought Merck might be in an “era of good feeling” because of their successful new cholesterol drug, so we wrote to ask why they weren’t making the combo available. They replied that they “never comment on products they are not marketing.”
Bungled by bureaucracy
Industry experts point out a possible reason for the decision not to market this helpful combination. Merck had already done clinical trials on Mevacor to prove it lowers cholesterol levels. (Whether that ended up doing any good, or even more harm than good, was not part of the trial.) CoQ10 as a dietary supplement was already on the market and widely available. However, the FDA would have required a new multimillion-dollar clinical trial on the combination in order for it to be approved!
As two separate pills, the FDA saw no problem. Multiple individual drugs are given together to millions of people every day. But combine the two into one pill, and the FDA sees it as a new drug. Even though the only “side effect” of CoQ10 is to reduce the toxicity of the statin. Apparently the FDA has to protect the public against being protected from drug side effects!
Barking up the wrong tree
But back to whether statins make any sense to begin with. Sure they lower cholesterol levels—thus the FDA approves them for that purpose.
But as I explained already, that doesn’t improve health.
And recent research is showing how these drugs actually harm the body.
A study in the journal Muscle and Nerve finds that statins may actually make it harder for the body to recover from muscle injury.1 Of course, the heart is the most important muscle in the body. And the most important healing is the ability of the body to heal itself.
If a statin interferes with the ability for muscles to heal, is that good for your health? Or for your heart? Of course not!
It makes sense that one of the common side effects of statins is crippling muscle cramps. The pain can be so severe that it makes it impossible for many people to tolerate these drugs—even when they’re incessantly pushed to do so by medical drug treatment protocols.
Listen to the numbers
Statistical studies back up my concerns about the modern obsession with cholesterol. The World Health Organization (WHO) looks beyond the borders of the United States for health trends. In every country where
WHO has collected data, the lower the average cholesterol level, the higher the overall death rate in the population.
My late colleague at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Arthur Schatzkin, was very good at ferreting out statistical associations. In large databases he found lower cholesterol levels were linked to higher death rates from cancer—and that was back in the 1980s.
But somehow I don’t recall that line of investigation being pursued.
The bottom line is that poisoning your metabolism does not make for a healthy heart.
We need to look at the real causes of heart disease—and stop ingesting medicines that are actually poisons—if we want to improve heart health.
For more on natural approaches we already know work, see The Insider’s Secret to Conquering High Blood Pressure and Protecting Your Heart which you received as a new subscriber.
1. “Effect of simvastatin on passive strain-induced skeletal muscle injury in rats,” Muscle & Nerve 2012; 46(6): 899-907