Side effects of statins include brain fog, joint pain, kidney injury, impaired liver function, heart failure, and even dementia. We have been told that statins improve heart health by lowering cholesterol. But it turns out that most of the information we’ve been given has been based on deceptive statistics.
David Diamond, a neuroscientist with a PhD in biology, has done a deep dive on the subject, since he himself was prescribed statins many years ago. He came to realize that there is a false narrative surrounding cholesterol and heart health. And that the data for studies showing the “efficacy of statins” has been manipulated to show favorable outcomes. Today he reviews the data and uncovers the truth about the problem with statins. He also offers a number of ideas for what to do instead of taking these increasingly popular prescription medications.
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
More than 200 million people around the world, including children, take statin drugs for heart health. Unfortunately, evidence indicates that statins lead to a host of health issues and don’t help with the heart after all. If cholesterol-lowering medications are not the answer for a healthy heart, what is? This is episode 397. Our guest is David Diamond, a neuroscientist who has been prescribed statins and decided to do a little research for himself on cholesterol and heart disease.
He found flawed studies using deceptive statistics that convinced him to run in the opposite direction away from pharmaceuticals. He discusses with us his findings and why he is convinced that we need to question the narrative around cholesterol. He offers concrete ideas for what to do to keep the heart healthy and strong without prescription medication.
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Welcome to the show, David.
Thanks for having me on your show.
I’ll never forget a few years back. I would hang out with a friend of mine. We were both in our thirties. He would be like, “I am losing my mind. It must have been all the drugs I did when I was into rock and roll in the twenties,” but he also told me that he was on statins because his family had a history of heart disease. I thought, “You’re 35. Why are you on statins?” I came to find out later that statins can play a role in poor cognitive function.
Clinical studies are showing that.
He probably was told, “You have high cholesterol. Your family has a history of heart problems. We’re going to put you on these statins.” What’s the issue with cholesterol? Here at the foundation, we’re always saying it’s good for you but talk to us about it as if we knew nothing.
First, I should say your friend at 35 on statins surprises me. They’re putting children on statins now. It has been supported by the American Pediatric Association but what you will get from the American Heart Association and most cardiologists is that cholesterol is this sticky substance. It sticks to your arteries and blocks your arteries. You need to reduce cholesterol as much as possible almost from birth. In that way, you will live a long and healthy life without heart attacks. That’s wrong.
How did you get involved in this issue about cholesterol, diet and health in the first place?
My expertise is in biology with specific expertise in neuroscience. I’ve been a neuroscientist for over 40 years. My focus was to study the brain and memory. My career was going along fine until I had a blood test years ago, which was alarming. My blood test showed extremely high triglycerides. I was in the top 1% of all people with triglycerides. That is serious. I had extremely low HDL. That’s called good cholesterol. That combination is a killer. I was given a death sentence, which said, “If you don’t get your numbers right, you’re going to die soon.” I had fifteen times greater risk of dying from a heart attack compared to a healthy person. This was years ago.
This is why my expertise is brain function. I didn’t know anything about cholesterol. We learn in biology that cholesterol is an essential molecule of life. Cholesterol is a steroid or a lipid. It is an essential molecule from which we make other hormones. We make estrogen, testosterone and vitamin D from cholesterol. It’s an essential molecule of life. It’s the mother molecule of all steroids. I knew that but I also was concerned. My cholesterol was high. My triglycerides were high. My doctor told me I was in serious trouble. He recommended I go on a statin. This was years ago.
What did you do?
I’ve been very well-funded by drug companies in my neuroscience research. I’m not against drugs personally or professionally. I’ve published papers on how drugs affect the brain. I’m not anti-drugs. After I talked with my doctor, I went back to my office, read a few papers and realized it. The problem I was having was I was eating too many carbohydrates. I happen to have a genetic anomaly. That’s also what I learned.
When I eat sugar or any form of carbohydrates, I’m extremely efficient at converting that sugar into fat. I’m more efficient than most people. It’s a genetic anomaly. That’s what drives up my triglycerides. That’s also what puts me at great risk of having a heart attack. I put my background in biology to good use. I started studying cholesterol and heart disease. That’s why in the last few years, this is my second career. I have made a scientific study of how cholesterol is involved or not involved in heart disease.
Cholesterol is an essential molecule for life. Why has it been maligned as the root cause of heart disease?
It’s a complicated answer. On one hand, we need cholesterol to repair damaged tissue all over the body. Every cell needs cholesterol. One way to look at this is when your arteries are damaged as a result of high blood sugar or high oxidized lipids, which can occur as a result of eating fried foods, for example, those arteries get damaged. What comes to the rescue is cholesterol. Cholesterol is used to repair the tissue. I often compare it to the spackle you put on the wall after you’ve got a hole there. It would be crazy then to blame the spackle on the cause for the hole.
Cholesterol is essential to repair damaged tissue. That is one reason why you find cholesterol in damaged arteries and as plaque in arteries but there’s another thing. Cholesterol can get damaged by high blood sugar. What you find is a subset of cholesterol, which is in a sense, not natural cholesterol. It’s the damaged cholesterol.
It’s also called a small dense LDL or cholesterol. You see that in higher concentrations when you have high blood sugar. The two go together. You don’t have this damaged cholesterol in the absence of high blood sugar. Cholesterol can be a bit like teenagers. Sometimes it gets connected to a bad crowd. You give cholesterol a bad name because it’s hanging out with the wrong cohorts.
Thank you for these illustrations because I find this all very confusing at times with the HDL and the LDL. There’s good and there’s bad. Some people tell me, “I’ve heard that the problem isn’t with HDL but with the ratio of cholesterol and the right kinds.” I’m like, “My brain is spinning.” Can you clarify that a little bit for us, David as well?
The ratio of HDL is important. It’s called good cholesterol because, in general, higher HDL is associated with better health but what’s important for readers is higher HDL is also a source associated with overall better metabolic health. People who exercise, don’t smoke and have low blood sugar also have higher HDL. There’s nothing magical about HDL. It’s simply a marker of good health.
In a sense, triglycerides are important. Triglycerides are fats that are in your blood. That’s how fat is stored. You don’t want too many triglycerides in your blood because when triglycerides go high, your blood gets thicker. Ultimately, when you’re measuring the two, the HDL number should be about the same as the triglyceride number. If your HDL is 60 or 70 and your triglyceride is 60 or 70, that’s an optimal ratio. That tells you that you have good health. My triglycerides were 700 and my HDL was 30.
No wonder you were afraid.
Think about it. If the ideal ratio is 1:1 triglyceride and HDL, my ratio was over 20:1. My doctor was justified in being alerted about how dangerous that was. That was a ticking cardiovascular time bomb. I have this genetic anomaly. I have not been able to get my ratio to 1:1. There aren’t enough studies on people like me to know what ratio is associated with good health. I’ve lost a good bit of weight. I’ve gone low-carb. I’ve gotten my triglycerides down to 150. I’ve seen from other people with my anomaly that may be about as low as it’s going to go.
My HDL gets up to about 50 to 60. I still don’t have that 1:1 ratio. I’ve made it since having that diagnosis. I seem to be doing okay but there’s no guarantee as someone with my genetic condition as to how far I’ll go. My brother has the same genetic condition. What’s important is someone with my genetic condition is extremely susceptible to becoming obese. I make fat very easily. If I go on a binge of carbs on a weekend, I gain 5 pounds just like that. I could be obese if I didn’t limit my carbs. This is why it’s very important to me.
If I’m hearing you correctly, for the general population, if we don’t smoke, exercise and eat a Wise Traditions-style diet, our ratios should be more aligned with what we hope would be a healthy heart and a healthy lifestyle.
We’ve got 50 years of good low-carb clinical trials. We’ve got observations of people when you look at triglycerides and HDL for people explicitly on a low-carb diet. Here, we’re talking about normal people, not people like me. When they go low-carb, their triglycerides plummet typically below 100 and the HDL rises. You’ve got a ratio that’s pretty close to 1:1 typically less than 2 and 3:1. That is ideal. When you cut sugar and in general, not have oxidized fats and deep-fried fats, you’re looking at people who have optimized their metabolic health.
Here at the Weston A. Price Foundation, we warn people away from seed oils and those fried foods that they would find on a roadside stand or in their chips. Those aren’t carbs. They’re killer carbs because they’re made with these rancid oils. We are big fans of saturated fat. I don’t know how you feel about that but we’re big into it because we think it’s more ancestral.
I grew up with the idea that being a vegetarian was healthy. I was not a vegetarian. I didn’t eat much meat. Back when my doctor first told me I was at high risk of having a heart attack, I went even further and cut back on my meat. I thought it was great that I was eating bread without the butter and the cheese, to show you how ignorant a scientist can be. I grew up with this idea. It’s in my research. I’ve given talks on this and published papers on this. I agree with Wise Traditions.
Saturated fat has been demonized. All forms of natural saturated fats are very healthy for you, including tropical oils. This is personal. This is philosophy. You’ve got vegetarians that are demonizing saturated fat. You’ve also got a financial interest in which tropical oils have been demonized in large part because they’re primarily saturated fats and because the US doesn’t produce much in the way of saturated tropical oils. It’s a political and socioeconomic battle as well.
Talking about financial gain leads us to statins. I’m thinking, “If only more patients knew that a change in diet and lifestyle could improve their heart health and their overall health, the statin profit margin would go way down.”
This is something that I researched heavily and published papers on. We have a paper, which I’ll share with you afterward. The idea with a statin is that high cholesterol is bad for you. Statin is a drug that interferes with the enzyme that enables cholesterol to be formed. You reduce cholesterol levels with a statin. Published studies are showing reduced incidents of heart attacks and death with statins given to people.
The best studies have been in what they call secondary prevention. People have already had a heart attack. They take a statin. There is a reduced incidence of heart attacks. What I show in my papers and my presentations is that the reduction in heart attacks appears to be enormous. Heart attacks are reduced by 50% when you take a statin. That sounds pretty impressive.
This is what I have talked about. I have published papers on this. Let me show you how you can play with numbers. I can show you how I can double your chances of winning the lottery. I’ll sell you this trick for only $50. What does doubling mean? Here it is for free. If you buy 2 tickets to win the lottery, you are doubling your chances compared to buying 1 ticket. It’s true. 2 is twice as much as 1, yet it’s still 1 in 100 million that you’re going to win compared to 2 in 100 million. That’s how the statin advocates have manipulated the numbers. Let’s say there are two drugs. One reduces heart attacks by 50%. Another drug reduces heart attacks by 1%. Which drug would you rather take?
The one that reduces it by 50%.
It’s the same drug. This is what is remarkable. These are real numbers. In the studies, what you’ve got is 2% of the people given a placebo or no drug have a heart attack and 1% of the people that don’t have a heart attack are given a statin. Going from 2 to 1 is 50%. 1 is half of 2. This is why in the advertisements and the medical conventions, what people hear from their doctors is, “You have 50% less likely to have a heart attack when you take a statin,” but the real number is 1%. That’s a typical number.
It gets even more ridiculous. There was a trial called Jupiter. It’s one of the first trials for rosuvastatin or Crestor. In Crestor, the rate of heart attacks in the placebo people was 0.75%. That’s given a placebo. The rate of people given a statin was about 0.4%. We’re talking about less than 1% of all people but look at those numbers. 0.4% is about half of 0.75%. In the ads for Crestor, you will see that it reduces heart attacks by 50%. It’s mind-boggling.
A patient in the doctor’s office hearing the alarming cholesterol numbers would be quick to take any medicine. Most people are not going to do the deep dive that you have done. This is disheartening because I do understand that statins come with a host of side effects and complications for our health.
The first thing to emphasize is the effects are very small only in people who have already had a heart attack. In what they call primary prevention in which people have not had a heart attack, it’s negligible almost zero. The second thing is the side effects have been minimized and ignored. I presented and published this. When we talk about side effects or adverse effects, how do statin advocates present it? They don’t use what’s called the relative risk as the 50%.
They will say the side effects increase from 1% to 2% of some side effects, such as the development of diabetes or from 5% in the control to 10% in people with statins. They will say, “The increase is negligible. It’s 5%.” They don’t present the numbers in what’s called the relative risk in which there is a doubling in their rate of diabetes. We published a paper. We have been publishing papers over the years in which we documented 40 medical peer-reviewed papers documenting a host of adverse effects of statins, including brain fog and impaired cognitive effects.
There is one important paper published showing elderly people or 75-year-old people statins explicitly taken off of their statins. These are people diagnosed with dementia. I want to pause and chew on this. Seventy-five-year-old men and women diagnosed with dementia taking statins are all taken off the statins. Dementia disappeared. They got better. What’s crucial in this study is when they put them all back on the statin, dementia returned. Think about the explosion or the epidemic of Alzheimer’s we have. Almost half of all adults are looking to take statins. How many of those people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have impaired brain functioning because of the statins we’re taking?
Coming up, David discusses why these findings are not presented in mainstream media. He also gives his recommendations on keeping a healthy heart without prescription medications.
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What’s important is the brain is unique. The brain makes its cholesterol. The brain needs cholesterol to be able to make new brain cells, synapses and memories. The brain has control over its cholesterol. The brain is what’s called a blood-brain barrier. It can keep drugs from getting into it. Many of the statins are not able to get into the brain. What’s interesting is the statins that can get into the brain that interfere with the ability of the brain to make cholesterol are the statins that produce cognitive deficits.
It’s the statins that can get into the brain that interfere with the ability of the brain to make cholesterol. Those are the statins that produce cognitive deficits.
We published a paper on this. In the study that showed the reversal of dementia, primarily, it’s the drugs that can get into their brains. I want you to think about this. The brain makes its cholesterol. It has its machinery. When you take a statin like Lipitor, which can get into the brain, it goes to the brain and stops the brain from making cholesterol. It interferes with the ability of the brain not only to make new brain cells. It interferes with the ability of the brain to make new networks.
That is the drug I’m pretty sure that my 35-year-old friend was on.
Lipitor is the most widely prescribed statin.
He couldn’t think straight. Plus, he was 35. Keep in mind, he was fairly young. He had joint pain.
That is along with cognitive deficits. Joint pain is extremely common. There has been a great effort by the statin advocates to say, “This isn’t real. It’s all in your head. It’s called the nocebo effect. You’ve been told statins will cause joint pain. Therefore, you have joint pain. It’s all in your head.” It’s not all in your head. It’s in your joints. It truly does interfere with muscle function. It causes muscle atrophy, which then ultimately impairs kidney function.
There are studies showing kidney injury associated with statin use. You’ve got impaired liver function and potentially even heart failure related to statin use. There’s an epidemic of heart failure. Along with the Wise Traditions, what’s important to appreciate is the heart depends to a great extent on ketones. Ketones nourish the heart as well as the brain. Ketones are produced as a result of a very low-carb diet. This is information.
The heart depends to a great extent on ketones. Ketones nourish the heart as well as the brain.
When you talk about mainstream media, mainstream media is a financial business. When we’re talking about networks, you’re not going to have me interviewed on networks and hear about this information on mainstream media. You’re hearing this pretty much in social media but in general, this isn’t in mainstream media because how could you have someone like me talk about this and then right after, we would have a commercial for Lipitor? It’s not going to happen in mainstream media but we are getting our message out in social media, my publications and the publications of other good people in the medical literature.
I can’t wait to get some of those studies. What concerns me the most in this conversation is the young people. You said that younger children are even taking statins. Is that because some health agency lowered the number of cholesterol and said, “Everyone at this level can take the statins?”
It’s a great concern you have. We responded to a paper advocating statin for children. This is published in a journal. There is an affliction called familial hypercholesterolemia. These are people who have a genetic anomaly in which they don’t bind cholesterol very well to their membranes. What happens is the liver cranks out lots of cholesterol. They will have 2, 3 or 4 times as much cholesterol, specifically LDL, which is called bad cholesterol.
These are people with this genetic anomaly, which from birth means they have extremely high cholesterol. You do find a subset of people with familial hypercholesterolemia do have heart attacks very young. This has been described for over a century. You find someone that has a heart attack at twenty years of age and dies of a heart attack. They’ve got cholesterol in their arteries and have high cholesterol in their blood.
The logical conclusion was this must be the cholesterol that’s clogging your arteries. That’s why they want these children to be on statins from the time they’re young. We published a paper in which we evaluated the same literature. This is in the medical literature. We found that it’s not the cholesterol. The people with a genetic anomaly in which they have high cholesterol or the subset of people that have heart attacks have a different genetic anomaly, which is they have high clotting factors.
There’s a second genetic anomaly that comes along with a subset of the people that have high cholesterol. It’s the people that have extremely high clotting factors. One is called fibrinogen. Those are the people that die young from heart disease. What doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking about cholesterol clogging arteries is the vast majority of people with this anomaly or familial hypercholesterolemia live long and healthy lives. You’ve got 80-year-old people with astronomically high cholesterol with this disease who are extremely healthy and not having heart attacks. We publish and said, “This doesn’t make sense because it is not the cholesterol. It’s the clotting factors.”
To your point also about older people with very high levels of cholesterol and even those who don’t have that anomaly, Sally Fallon Morell has told me that as we age, our body increases the amount of cholesterol it produces. That shouldn’t be alarming but conventional medical circles that we run in are always saying, “Lower it. It’s not good,” but we need that cholesterol. Do you agree with that?
First, I wouldn’t agree that our cholesterols rise with age if we are healthy. I often hear about how blood pressure rises with age. It doesn’t. My blood pressure hasn’t changed in the past few years. I hate to admit it but I’m not considered elderly. What’s important is looking at the person’s metabolism. For a person that is healthy, exercises, has low blood sugar and is not overweight, their basic metabolism is stable. This is what we have to emphasize. Much of the work is done on unhealthy people but when you look at healthy people, you don’t see age-related changes as far as I can find in the literature.
There have been studies comparing healthy people. As they age, their blood pressure doesn’t rise. It’s the overweight people who don’t exercise. Their blood pressure rises. Their cholesterol rise. We need cholesterol for our brain to be healthy but the brain makes its cholesterol. When you take a blood test, you’re not getting the brain levels of cholesterol. You’re seeing what’s out there in the blood.
I want to go back to your point as we begin to wrap up. It is not fat or meat that we necessarily need to avoid to get that appropriate cholesterol ratio as much as it is carbs and sugar that we should be considering lowering. We’re all about avoiding refined sugars, flowers and such and going back to more ancestral ways of eating. Is there anything else you would recommend to help protect our hearts and have that right ratio?
First, I want to agree with everything you said. What we want to think about is the paleo diet. We need to think about what humans evolved to consume. When we think about foods that came into existence in the past 10,000 years, what we’re looking at are entirely novel foods. There’s an absurdity out there talking about meat being unhealthy. I’ve seen these vegetarian advocates say, “Meat causes diabetes.” There’s an absurdity to that. How can meat, which is something humans are adapted to consume somehow raise our blood sugar or damage our pancreas? That makes no sense.
I’ve seen this emphasis on legumes. First, realize that if you eat raw beans, you’re going to die. We are not made to consume raw beans. Think about how extensively it has to be processed before you can even partially digest beans. What people need to understand is our immune system looks at some of these novel foods, including grains. Our immune system interprets grains, in particular, wheat as an invader. It’s as if wheat is like a virus or a bacteria. When our immune system attacks wheat, which also damages our colon, we get all kinds of autoimmune diseases.
I agree with Wise Traditions and Sally. What we want to focus on is what was the lifestyle 50,000 years ago. People were active. People were primarily consuming food obtained from animals. When there wasn’t any food, it probably was rare. Humans are the apex hunters or predators. What drove our evolution was that humans were so incredibly good at killing animals. We’re far superior to any other creatures around. Animals appear to have gone extinct where every human went.
There probably weren’t long periods of starvation in which we were dependent on eating fruits and vegetables. Even then, there wasn’t much the way fruits and vegetables are available to us. It’s nothing like what you see in the supermarket. I’m an advocate for thinking about what was human life 20,000, 30,000 or 50,000 years ago. It was consuming to a great extent animals. If it can be pasture-raised, it’s far healthier than one that’s not.
Even for vegetarians, I emphasize to people, “You can have eggs and cheese. Animals don’t have to die for that.” Find pasture-raised chickens. Eat eggs and cheese. You get lots of nutrition from that. It’s far better than being a vegan. As far as what I recommend to remain heart-healthy, it’s so simple. Don’t smoke. Eat pasture-raised animals. Don’t eat grains. Eliminate grains. Don’t follow the foolishness about legumes being healthy for you.
I do want to add this. A subset of people I do think have problems with dairy. Dairy is a relatively new food for our species. I do think some people don’t respond well to dairy. They need to be sensitive to what they’re reacting to because dairy is something that resulted from the domestication of animals, which is relatively new. Ultimately, you need to think about how you respond to certain foods. Don’t take anti-inflammatories. If you’re sedentary, you’re overweight and you’re eating crap, you say, “I have inflammation. I’ll take a drug to reduce my inflammation.”
Change the core factor that’s causing you to be unhealthy. Change your diet and your lifestyle, which is a heck of a lot harder than taking a pill but I always say to people, “You don’t find good health in a pill. Change your diet and your lifestyle.” Here it is years later. I’ve never taken a statin. I never will. I don’t take any medication at all. I feel very fortunate to have had a background in biology that has enabled me to get here years later to be able to talk with you and share what I’ve learned.
You won’t find good health in a pill. Change your diet, change your lifestyle.
The readers can’t see you as I can. This man does not look like he’s 60-something. He looks great. Thank you for these words of advice. I have two more questions for you, David. Besides your website, can you give me some links so that people can find resources and study some of these things for themselves?
I’ll send you a lot.
If the reader could do one thing to improve their health or one step in that direction of being less sedentary or changing their diet, what would that first recommendation be for them from you?
Exercise is good but it’s not the antidote to a bad diet. People sometimes think, “I’ll exercise, lose weight and get healthy.” Exercise is good but it won’t enable you to lose weight by itself. Although I advocate for exercise, it is secondary to minimizing your carb consumption. Understand that we’re not just talking about refined sugar, which is bad. Make that change to reduce the food that will raise your blood sugar. I do recommend getting a continuous glucose monitor for people. You can see an increase in blood sugar.
Exercise is good, but it’s not the antidote to a bad diet.
I was surprised at how high my blood sugar went if I had bread or cereal. You can get this prescribed by a doctor. The first thing is to realize it’s eating bread or potatoes. People think sweet potatoes are great. Sweet potatoes are still going to raise your blood sugar. The first thing to target is any food that will raise your blood sugar. That’s refined sugar, bread and potatoes. Reduce anything that will raise your blood sugar. If you can give up the grains, which will reduce the inflammation, that’s the primary thing. Get out, enjoy life and be active.
David, thank you so much for this conversation. It has been fantastic.
Thank you, Hilda. It has been a pleasure.
Dr. Diamond defends his recommendations to avoid statins and points to the researchers and his own experience that have informed his stance. https://www.usf.edu/arts-sciences/departments/psychology/people/ddiamond-rebuttal.aspx
Our guest was David Diamond. Follow him on Twitter @LDLskeptic. I’m Hilda Labrada Gore, the host and producer of this show for the Weston A. Price Foundation. Look for me on my YouTube channel, Holistic Hilda and Instagram @HolisticHilda. For a review from Apple Podcasts, ElleGluteLove had this to say, “Nutrition for the ears. I am so glad to have found this podcast. I’ve followed the Weston A. Price Foundation for about a year but only recently did it dawn on me to see if they had a podcast. It is fantastic. I’ve loved all of the guests and all of the views they bring.”
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About David Diamond
David Diamond received his Ph.D. in Biology in 1985 from the University of California, Irvine, with a specialization in neuroscience. He was a career scientist at the Department of Veterans Affairs for 30 years and is currently a Professor in the Department of Psychology, Cognitive, Neural and Social Science Division, at the University of South Florida. Dr. Diamond has been funded by the VA, NIH, DoD, NSF and pharmaceutical companies in his neuroscience research, with 150 publications, reviews and book chapters. In the past decade, Dr. Diamond has expanded his research program to address controversial issues in obesity, cardiovascular disease and nutrition. Dr. Diamond has delivered lectures on-line with over a million views addressing how the public and healthcare workers have been misinformed about the hazards of elevated levels of serum cholesterol and the appearance of substantial benefits of statins, which lower cholesterol.
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