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Can Radical Cholesterol Cutting Raise Cancer Risk?


Findings raise red flag about aggressive cholesterol reduction; statins raise inflammatory omega-6s; omega-3s increase statins' protective power

by Craig Weatherby

Statin drugs such as Lipitor, Pravachol, and Lovastatin reduce the risk of heart attacks and other adverse coronary events by lowering LDL cholesterol, high blood levels of which are associated with greater risk of heart attack and sudden death.

However, many who die from heart troubles have normal LDL levels, while many people with elevated LDL levels never suffer a heart attack or other adverse cardiac event.

Since much uncertainty remains concerning the connections between elevated levels of LDL and risk of death or heart attacks, new findingswhich link low cholesterol levels to increased cancer riskshould provoke discussion and research within the cardiology community.

This is especially true because the definition of "elevated LDL" being steadily ratcheted downward, more and more people are being prescribed increasingly potent statin drugs.

While statins drugs are generally anti-inflammatorya desirable effect with regard to heart risksthey induce changes to the body's fatty acid profile that could explain an increased risk of cancer (Evans M et al 2004; Harris JI et al 2004; Jula A et al 2005):

  • Statins may increase blood levels of a pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid fat called arachidonic acid (AA).
  • Statins may increase the ratio of omega-6 AA to omega-3 EPA and DHA. (They stimulate release of long-chain fatty acids from cell membranes, but provoke greater release of omega-6s than omega-3s.)

Omega-6 AA is an essential component of cell membranes and the immune system, and AA can induce cancer cells to commit “suicide” (apoptosis; Levine L 2003).

But as the new findings suggest, increasing your bodily ratio of pro-inflammatory AA to anti-inflammatory omega-3s over a period of years holds ominous implications. This is because, in cell and animal studies, omega-6s generally promote cancer cell growth while omega-3s generally inhibit cancer growth.

The omega-6-favoring effects of statins seem especially worrisome in light of the fact that most Americans already suffer from an overload of omega-6s in their cells, thanks to the gross excess of omega-6s in their diets.

Boston team finds low cholesterol raises cancer risk

Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine near Boston analyzed data from 23 randomized, controlled clinical trials of statin drugs, involving 75,317 participants.

Two findings stand out as alarming in light of the growing treatment trend toward extreme cholesterol-lowering via high-dose statin therapy:

Liver toxicity rose with increased statin doses. The Tufts team proposed that treatment with moderate doses of several drugs may be safer than therapy with high doses of statins alone.

Patients with the lowest LDL levels were at significantly increased risk of all types of cancer, versus participants with higher LDL cholesterol levels.

As the Tufts team wrote, “…the risk of cancer is significantly associated with lower achieved LDL-C levels… Furthermore, the cardiovascular benefits of low achieved levels of LDL-C may in part be offset by an increased risk of cancer” (Alsheikh-Ali AA et al 2007).

Nutrition offers a serious alternative

The connection between total cholesterol levels or cholesterol profiles and adverse cardiovascular events or cardiac deaths is much weaker than we're led to believe (See “Does Fish Oil Lower Cholesterol? Does it Matter?”).

People are somewhat more likely to have a heart attack when they have one or more of three adverse cholesterol profiles:

  1. Very high total cholesterol levels
  2. High levels of small, dense LDL cholesterol (which can imbed in artery walls more easily)
  3. High levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol

However, other factors are equally powerful factors in heart attacks, sudden cardiac death, and strokes:

  • Triglyceride levels
  • Blood stickiness (platelet activation)
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
  • Inflammation

Fish oil is known to improve all four of these risk factors substantially, and to reduce the risks of a second heart attack or sudden cardiac death: the mortality category that accounts for half of all heart-related fatalities.

This is not necessarily an either/or situation for folks being urged to take statins.

A large clinical study from Japan demonstrated that when heart patients took omega-3 EPA in addition to statins, they had 19 percent fewer adverse cardiovascular events compared to those taking statins alone (Yokoyama M et al 2007).

Insulin and leptin resistance also appear to rival cholesterol levels as predictors of cardiovascular risk, while impaired immune-cell response to arterial plaques, and homocysteine levels count as key risk factors.

If the very aggressive kind of cholesterol reduction recommended these days raises cancer risks, it seems wise to consider a more holistic approach to heart healthone that downplays drastic cuts in LDL cholesterol in favor of raising HDL cholesterol levels and reducing inflammation, blood pressure, stress, and the risk of arrhythmias.

There are many alternative anti-inflammatory agents available, including low-dose aspirinwhich reduces colon cancer riskand colorful, antioxidant-rich foods such as berries and red-orange-green vegetables, high consumption of which appears to reduce cancer risk as well as inflammation.

We recommend reading “Reverse Heart Disease Now,” the excellent book by holistic heart surgeon Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D. His book clarifies the cholesterol picture and identifies credible heart-health supplements such as omega-3s and Co-Q10.


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  • Evans M, Roberts A, Davies S, Rees A. Medical lipid-regulating therapy: current evidence, ongoing trials and future developments. Drugs. 2004;64(11):1181-96. Review.
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