The Truth About Cholesterol

Natural Ways to Reduce Your Heart Disease Risk

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Heart Health Women's Health

According to the American Heart Association (AHA),  heart disease—including hypertension and stroke—is the most frequent cause of death in women today. And, more than 1 in 3 women has some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD). CVD results, in part, from an accumulation of oxidized fat in blood vessels that calcifies and eventually causes blood vessel and heart damage.

The risk of CVD can be quickly and easily lowered by diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes, but most doctors focus primarily on lowering cholesterol.

Why Cholesterol Doesn’t Always Count

We have been conditioned to categorize cholesterol as either “good” (HDL) or “bad” (LDL). Moreover, we have also been told that we need to keep our total cholesterol below 200. This is ridiculous! And I am convinced that the American Heart Association created this number under direct pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, which seeks to increase prescriptions of cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.

The truth is, neither type of cholesterol is inherently good nor bad. And both are necessary for good health. Plus, most of the studies on heart disease and blood lipid levels have been done in men, so we still don’t know exactly what levels are optimal for women.

Still, if a woman has total cholesterol levels of 225-240, she is not likely to be at serious increased risk of heart disease—especially if her HDL is high (45 or above) and she has no other risk factors for heart disease. In fact, half of the people who get heart disease don’t have high cholesterol!

You see the LDL cholesterol that statins are prescribed to reduce is not a disease! And lowering levels won’t necessarily prevent disease in someone who is otherwise healthy and at low risk. But statins carry risk, and this must be weighed against the relative and absolute risk of dying.

7 Reasons Not to Take Statins

Your body and brain need cholesterol to function properly. I feel strongly that prescribing statins to healthy women to prevent heart disease misses the mark. It’s the same flawed reasoning that led doctors to prescribe Premarin to millions of women in the 1980s and 1990s because it was shown to raise HDL levels.

The truth is too low cholesterol can put you at increased risk for serious disease.

Here just a few reasons to avoid cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins:

  1. Deplete vital nutrients. Studies show that statins deplete the body’s CoEnzyme Q10 (CoQ10) needed for producing energy in the cells. Your heart requires CoQ10 to function properly. So why take a medication for heart health that depletes a vital nutrient shown to support the heart—as well as every cell in your body?
  1. Negatively affect your balance. Studies show that statins (along with other medications) have been shown to carry an increased risk of balance deficits and greater likelihood to sustain a fall, which puts older adults at increased risk for fractures.
  1. Cause muscle weakness, pain and fatigue. The biggest complaint among people taking statins is that they cause muscle weakness and associated pain and fatigue. This is directly related to depletion of CoQ10. These symptoms can be worse for women who are hypothyroid.
  1. Creates cognitive problems. The second most common “side effect” is nerve and brain damage n the form of memory and mood issues and even dementia. Again, this is directly related to depletion of CoQ10. The good news is studies show that when people stop taking statins their cognitive function improves—sometimes in a matter of days!
  1. Difficulty detoxing your body. You liver is constantly detoxing your blood. To do this is also require a lot of CoQ10. Even a small deficiency can cause liver problems, which can show up as elevated liver enzymes on test. Liver damage begins the minute you start taking statins and people taking these drugs need to get their liver enzymes checked regularly.
  1. Increases psychiatric problems. There are reports of increased psychiatric adverse reactions to statins, including depression, confusion and aggressive reactions. Impotence, sleeping disorders, nervousness and more have also been reported.
  1. Suppresses the immune system. Statins are known to suppress the immune system and are often prescribed for people with inflammatory condition such as arthritis. Unfortunately, drugs that suppress the immune system increase your risk for cancer. I am particularly concerned about the increased risk of breast cancer in women on statins.

Statistics Everyone Should Understand

One more thing you need to be aware of regarding statins (and all drugs) is something called the NNT, the Number Needed to Treat. The NNT refers to the number of people who need to be given a drug in order for one person to benefit from the treatment with that drug. The smaller the number the better. I have written more about NNT as well as NNH, the Number Needed to Harm, here.

When it comes to statins, the NNT in people without known heart disease is 104. This means 104 people without known heart disease need to be treated with statins in order to prevent a heart attack in 1 person. The NNT is 154 in order to prevent stroke. In people with known heart disease the NNT with statins to save one life from heart attack is 83. For stroke it is the NNT is 125.

The NNH is 10—1 out of every 10 people taking statins suffers myopathy (muscle pain.)

7 Natural Ways to Support Your Heart Health without Statins

If you get regular lipid profiles and are concerned about cholesterol, there are many things you can do to protect your heart naturally.

Here are 7 ways to get started:

  1. Cut out Sugar. Dietary fat is not the cause of heart disease as so many of us have been led to believe. Evidence shows too much sugar (in all forms) is the root cause of heart disease—not fat or cholesterol. Sugar causes inflammation. And the huge increase in sugar consumption in the United States parallels the rise in obesity and diabetes—both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
  1. Take Magnesium. Among its many roles in the body, magnesium helps stabilize electrical conduction in the cardiac muscle. It also helps relax the smooth muscle in blood vessels, so magnesium contributes to maintenance of normal blood pressure and vascular tone. Because it helps all muscles relax, it’s very effective in helping prevent cardiac damage and even death after a heart attack. In fact, up to 40 to 60 percent of sudden deaths from heart attack are caused by spasm in the arteries—not blockage from clots or arrhythmias! Magnesium also assists insulin in transporting glucose into cells, fighting glycemic stress. Magnesium deficiency is much more common than you would think due to commercial farming practices, which rob the soil of nutrients. Certain medications also cause depletion of magnesium. Magnesium comes in many forms. You can take magnesium oxide, chloride, or chelated magnesium. Capsules usually contain 250–500 mg of magnesium. If you have cardiovascular challenges, you should aim for 500 mg per day in divided doses. 
  1. Eat fatty, cold water fish. The well-known Nurse’s Health Study found that women who ate fish once per week cut their risk of stroke by 22 percent, while those who ate fish five or more times per week cut their risk by 52 percent. Studies have also shown that 3 grams per day of fish oil containing both EPA and DHA is cardioprotective because it makes platelets more slippery and decreases cellular inflammation. The evidence that the Omega-3 fats in fish are heart-healthy is so compelling that the American Heart Association recommends all adults consume fish at least twice per week. Fatty cold-water fish such as wild Alaskan salmon contains the most Omega-3 fats. If you prefer to take a supplement, take 1,000–5,000 mg of Omega-3 fats per day from fish oil, flax oil, hemp oil, or an algae-derived product. 
  1. Try natural progesterone cream. Perimenopause is the time when a progesterone deficiency is likely to make coronary arteries most susceptible to damage. Evidence that progesterone protects the heart is becoming more prevalent. And I predict that clinical trials in this decade will show without a doubt that progesterone decreases the magnitude and duration of coronary artery constriction. But not all progesterone is created equal. I urge you to research this issue for yourself before turning to potentially harmful drugs or synthetic hormones. While a substantial clinical trial is needed for proof of the cardiovascular benefits of progesterone, smaller studies have shown that angina can be treated effectively by as little as 20 mg of natural progesterone applied to the skin (chest, hands, or abdomen) once or twice per day. You can buy natural progesterone cream in many pharmacies or online. Emerita or ProGest are good brands. Taking progesterone orally doesn’t work nearly as well. 
  1. Feast on red yeast rice. Red yeast rice contains a naturally occurring lovastatin. (Lovastatin is also the generic name for Mevacor, a statin manufactured by Merck.) A number of compelling studies have shown that red yeast rice (which is actually a fungus grown on a form of rice prevalent in Asia) is as effective as statins at reducing cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol. One reason red yeast rice has been gaining in popularity is that is confers similar benefits to statins without the associated muscle pain. I recommend 600 mg of red yeast rice 2 or 3 times a day. If you supplement with red yeast rice, make sure to also supplement with 30–100 mg of Coenzyme Q10 every day.
  1. Add niacin. Niacin (vitamin B-5) is also a naturally occurring statin. Doctors often recommend it to help increase HDL (good) cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and lessen arterial constrictions. Studies show that niacin reduces plaque buildup significantly in high-risk patients. It works by keeping the liver from eliminating HDL cholesterol. 
  1. Listen to your heart. Emotions such as depression, anxiety, panic, and grief have been shown to cause constriction in blood vessels, thereby impeding the free flow of blood. Over the years I have seen happy, joyful women with high cholesterol levels live healthy lives into their 80s and even 90s while much younger women whose lives were characterized by depression, anxiety, or hostility might have their first heart disease symptoms in their early 50s despite normal cholesterol levels. That’s why the one-size-fits-all approach of prescribing a statin drug doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter. Pun intended!

Do you worry about high cholesterol. If so, what are you doing to supports your heart health?

 

Last Updated: February 21, 2024

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

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  1. Susan Tyrie
    1 month ago

    Thank you so very much for your informative, comprehensive and helpful article on high cholesterol. Lots of handy tactics for dealing with an (in my case, very suddenly) elevated cholesterol. I shall take your advice and await positive results ASAP.
    Much gratitude for what you do in caring for us all.

  2. karen
    2 months ago

    i had a SUDDEN complete abdominal hysterectomy IMMEDIATELY after my sedond pfizer shot for covid…and have NEVER been ok since. CANNOT have sex. used dialators, all kinds of appointments with gynos and phys therapists…and NO help. NEED hormones. please tell me if it is ok sometimes to have bio identical hormones 2 YEARS after hysterectomy. ovarian one and uterine two removed during hyst. with a few spots that migrated to peritoneal wall. all gone. chemo after. now 2 YEARS LATER I CSTILL AM COMPLETELY UNABLE TO HAVE SEX WITH MY BOYFRIEND!!! NEED HORMONES!!! please help. is life worth it without ANY hormones? no doctor will prescribe…although i was on bio identicals and COMPLETELY happy and healthy before pfizer shot. i have palb2 gene. HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I LOOK 20 YEARS OLDER THAN I DID 2 YEARS AGO! MYSKIN IS HORRIFIC…NOW. HELP WITH HORMONES PLEASE?????

  3. Beverly Olini
    3 months ago

    Thank you for all your helpful advice. I just need to find a doctor that thinks like you.

  4. Maureen
    3 months ago

    Thank you for stating the facts.
    Doctors that you see in most medical setting are very quick to want to put you on some sort of prescription.
    I have seen what statins do firsthand to other family members.
    One sibling could not walk after being on one for a short time. Low and behold he was like a new person just a few days after being taken off. He did not have a cholesterol issue but the doctors did not know why what had occurred happened to him. They were grasping at straws. To this day they do not know but he is a much happier person and will NEVER go on statins again. I have seen this in others cause diabetes and again with the muscle pain and almost paralysis–not being able to walk without the help of crutches or a walker.

  5. Jane Hallstrom
    6 years ago

    I love you! Niacin is B-3 (not 5). I know this because I used a powdered niacin product 50 years ago to flush out toxins at the advice of an orthomolecular psychiatrist my mother found to treat some nasty psychotic symptoms I was dealing with in my early 20’s. Thank you for your excellent advice and all the attendant links and references. XOXO

  6. Emily Akins
    8 years ago

    Which nician product do you recommend?

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