Eight Myths About Cholesterol

As some of you may know, cardiologist Stephen Sinatra and I co-authored a book which was just released this week, entitled “The Great Cholesterol Myth�?.

So, you might well ask, what is the great cholesterol myth? And why should I even care?

Let’s take the second question first. You should care for two reasons. One, the Great Cholesterol Myth has been the foundation of the boneheaded dietary advice you and I have been saddled with for the past thirty years, “official�? dietary advice that has directly contributed to the greatest epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in history.

And two, belief in the Great Cholesterol Myth has caused us to take our eye off the ball when it comes to preventing heart disease. Belief in the Great Cholesterol Myth has caused us to neglect the real causes of heart disease while obsessively focused on an innocuous molecule that’s essential for life and has only a minor role in heart disease.

The Great Cholesterol Myth is actually a series of related myths. Here are eight of my favorites.

MYTH: High cholesterol is the cause of heart disease.

FACT: Cholesterol is a fairly insignificant player in heart disease.

MYTH: High cholesterol is a good predictor of heart attacks.

FACT: High cholesterol is a lousy predictor of heart attacks. Half the people admitted to hospitals with heart disease have normal cholesterol, and plenty of people with elevated cholesterol have perfectly healthy hearts.

MYTH: Lowering cholesterol with statin drugs will prolong your life.

FACT: There is no data showing statins have any impact on longevity.

MYTH: Statin drugs are perfectly safe.

FACT: Statin drugs have significant side effects, including loss of memory and libido, muscle pain and fatigue, and approximately 65% of doctors don’t report those side effects. (1)

MYTH: Statin drugs are appropriate for men, women, children and the elderly.

FACT: The only group in which statins have been shown to have even a modest effect is in middle-aged men who’ve already had a heart attack. If you’re not in that group, you’ve got no business on a statin drug. (2)

MYTH: Saturated fat is dangerous.

FACT: Saturated fat is mostly neutral and may even have some health benefits. Recent peer-reviewed studies have shown no association of saturated fat with heart disease. (3)

MYTH: The higher your cholesterol, the shorter your lifespan.

FACT: In the Framingham Study, the people who actually lived the longest had the highest cholesterol. (4)

MYTH: A high carbohydrate diet protects you from heart disease.

FACT: Diets that substitute carbohydrates for saturated fat actually increase the risk for heart disease. (5)

For much, much more, check out our new book, “The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why Lowering Cholesterol Won’t Prevent Heart Disease and the Statin-Free Plan that Will“.…

Scared to Death

By Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS aka “The Rogue Nutritionist�? ™

Recently, a 30 year old meth addict named Ricky Lee Fowler was found guilty of starting what’s now known as the 2003 Old Fire in Southern California, a raging 90,000 acre blaze that resulted in the evacuation of 80,000 people and the destruction of nearly 1000 homes. Fowler was actually convicted of murder because five people died in the fire.

But here’s the thing: none of the five died because fire.

All five died from heart attacks.

I mention this because it’s a great example of something cardiologist Stephen Sinatra and I discuss at length in our new book, “The Great Cholesterol Myth�?. In that book, we talk about the four real causes of heart disease. One of those is what caused the five deaths in the Old Fire of 2003.

I’m talking about stress.

Voodoo Death

The notion that stress kills is hardly new. In the book we talk about something called “Voodo Death�?, a concept that was explored in the 1920’s by the great American physiologist Walter Cannon. Voodo death is sudden, unexplained death arising from a voodoo curse. Here’s how Esther Sternberg, MD, put it in the American Journal of Public Health. (1)

“The dramatic suddenness of the illness following the threat, coupled with a lack of any apparent injury, exposure to toxins, or infection suggested to Cannon that merely the fear of death could, through physiological response mechanisms initiated by fear, precipitate death itself.�?

Stress Kills, Cholesterol Doesn’t

The stress response is a complicated hormonal cascade of events that was designed to save your life in an emergency. But the devil is in the details. When that stress response is turned on 24/7—the way it is for a lot of us—nothing good happens. It’s like speeding down the 405 freeway in first gear. That first gear can be a lifesaver if you’re trying to get up a steep hill, but it’s death to your transmission if you’re driving 75.

Hormones are released—like cortisol and adrenaline—which cause blood pressure and heart rate to rise. Blood pounds against the artery walls, ultimately contributing to microinjuries in the vascular system that soon become inflamed. These inflamed areas attract oxidized particles of LDL called LDL-b, not to mention inflammatory cytokines and all sorts of other metabolic riff-raff, the end result of which can be unstable plaque.

And the end result of that can be a heart attack.

In vulnerable people—such as the five people who died in the fire—the result can be pretty immediate. A cardiovascular system that’s already been weakened by a bad diet with too many trans fats and sugar, and by inflammation and oxidation in the vascular walls can easily be overwhelmed by a sudden overload of cortisol and adrenaline. This is probably why more heart attacks happen on Monday morning than on any other time or day.

Scared to Death

There’s even a developing field devoted to the effects of stress on the heart—it’s called stress cardiomyopathy, and even “healthy�? people aren’t immune to it. “You have people in acute, sudden heart failure who were perfectly healthy an hour earlier�?, cardiologist Ilan Wittstein, MD, told the Wall Street Journal. (2) Many of these patients survive—but many do not.

The chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston—Martin A. Samuels, MD—has collected literally hundreds of reports detailing how people died suddenly in scary situations. The reports include stories of children who died while on amusement rides, people who were victims of muggings (even though there was no physical attack or injury), and car accident victims whose injuries were negligible. The only thing they all have in common is that their hearts literally failed, not because of cholesterol, not even because of physical injury, but because they were unable to survive the aftermath of a massive overload of stress hormones.

So why are we chasing cholesterol and not paying attention to stress?

One reason might be money. There’s over 34 billion dollars a year made on cholesterol-lowering drugs. There’s not a whole lot of money to be made teaching people how to manage stress.

One of the biggest casualties of the war on cholesterol is that it’s caused us to take our focus off the things that really cause heart disease, things we can actually do something about and things that don’t require prescription drugs.…

Trick Question: How Do You Lower Cholesterol? By Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS aka “The Rogue Nutritionist?

The other day, I received a request from a writer working on a story about how to lower cholesterol “naturally�?. His questions are reprinted below, together with my answer.

  1. What are your thoughts on taking supplements as part of a cholesterol-lowering plan?
  2. Which ones do you like, and why?
  3. Are they safe? What are the risks?
  4. How do supplements fit in with traditional cholesterol-lowering methods like statin drugs, diet, and exercise?

Sounds reasonable, right?

Here’s my answer:

Dear Writer,

I’m delighted to help you with your story, which, It appears, is about using supplements to lower cholesterol.

I am a firm believer that lowering cholesterol is the least important thing you can do for heart health.

In fact, I am the author of a book called, “The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why Lowering Cholesterol Won’t Prevent Heart Disease and the Statin-Free Plan that Will�?.

So I wonder if I’m the right person to be interviewed about how to lower your cholesterol since I’m on a mission to correct the impression that lowering cholesterol matters a whit.

As I said on the Dr. Oz show, trying to prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol is like trying to reduce calories by taking the lettuce off your whopper.

If you want to talk about supplements for heart health, I’m your man. If you want to talk about strategies to prevent heart disease, I’m your man.

But if you want to talk about how to lower your cholesterol, or what supplements to use as part of a “cholesterol-lowering plan�?, I’m probably not your guy.

To me, that’s like asking a general in the armed forces, “What’s the best way to invade Portugal so we can stop Al-Queda?�?

Al-Queda isn’t in Portugal. And cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease.


Jonny Bowden

The writer replied: Let me rethink my slant on the article. I’ll get back to you on that.

Well, at least that’s some progress!…