Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the leading causes of mortality in Canada, second only to cancer. Although cardiovascular disease and heart attacks in the past have affected men by majority, the number of women also suffering from heart conditions is rapidly increasing. At least 1 in 10 Canadians are currently taking cholesterol lowering drugs known as Statins, and that is only one class of drugs used to manage cardiovascular disease risk. Anticoagulants (blood thinners) and diuretics are also often used, and that still doesn’t account for the millions of Canadians recommended to take low dose aspirin daily as a preventative measure. While Western medicine and pharmaceutical drugs can save lives, they also house a number of potentially dangerous side effects, and don’t address the root cause of the disease.
In functional medicine, the root cause of cardiovascular health is identified as inflammation, known as the “silent killer” within the body. Adversely, in conventional medicine, elevated cholesterol levels are often used as the primary biomarker to identify risk factor for CVD. In reality, your total cholesterol actually means very little. The ratio of HDL (“good”) to LDL (“bad”) cholesterol is more important, and even more so is the density of the cholesterol molecules in the blood. Above all, elevated serum cholesterol is virtually meaningless in the absence of inflammation, as inflammation plays a major role arterial calcification (plaque build up in the arteries).
Understanding cholesterol’s function in the body is necessary to understand the risk of taking cholesterol lowering drugs. Dietary cholesterol, found primarily in animal foods, provide building blocks for hormones in the body and neurotransmitters in the brain. Cholesterol also has protective antioxidant properties that prevent against oxidative damage, which are associated with increased risk for various disease states. Cholesterol-rich foods also often contain saturated fats, which both contain and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins D and K, which have cardio-protective properties and play a role in proper calcium distribution and prevent calcification in the arteries. It is important to note that consuming dietary cholesterol is not linked to an increase in serum cholesterol levels.
Statin drugs are very effective at lowering cholesterol, but due to the mechanism of cholesterol in the body, they also have a number of side effects. One of the most well documented side effects of Statin drugs include Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) depletion. This occurs because Statins work on and block the pathway that produces CoQ10 in the body. CoQ10 is a major antioxidant produced in the body that protects the cardiovascular system – and more specifically – heart cells themselves. It also inhibits the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which would otherwise contribute to arterial plaque build up, increasing the risk of heart attack. CoQ10 also aids in the production of cellular energy, meaning depletion can lead to chronic fatigue, brain fog, memory decline, and poor muscle function and recovery. Because it acts as a vasodilator, playing a role in maintaining proper circulation, deficiency of CoQ10 often leads to erectile dysfunction and other disorders of the circulatory system.
CoQ10 is found in small amounts in animal foods, particularly muscle meat and organs such as heart, liver, and kidney. Supplementing with CoQ10 can be beneficial for those with elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, and should be first priority for anybody on a Statin. Taking at least 100mg of the active form of CoQ10 – called ubiquinol – is a great foundational supplement to support the cardiovascular system and overall health.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.
Originally published in 50+ Living in the Comox Valley Record for Edible Island Whole Foods Market