Put Statins in the Drinking Water? I Think Not.

Put Statins in the Drinking Water?  I Think Not.

It is amazing that only after the patent expiration of the best-selling statin drug of all time (i.e. Lipitor) that the FDA finally admitted that maybe the drug class that many physicians wanted to put into the drinking water might have some problems after all (1). In particular, the FDA issued a warning that use of statins increases the risk of memory loss and diabetes. The FDA said the risk of diabetes is “small;” however, they were playing fast and loose with the data. This is because the weaker the statin, the less the side-effect profile. The stronger (and better selling) the statin, the greater the side effects are (like diabetes and memory loss). You would think that after having Americans spend more than $50 billion in statin sales that the FDA would have asked these safety questions earlier.

How could statins cause memory loss and diabetes? It has been known for nearly 20 years that statins are the only drug that increase the levels of arachidonic acid (AA) by stimulating the enzyme delta 5-desaturase (2-4). This means greater cellular inflammation that leads to insulin resistance (thus increasing diabetes) and disturbances in signaling mechanisms in nerve cells (thus decreasing memory). I guarantee that no physician knows these facts because the drug companies had no reason to lose a potential sale to disclose that information. Apparently the FDA agreed with the drug companies, since that relevant information was never mentioned in any of the side-effect profiles until now.

The drug industry developed a great marketing pitch for statins: “If your cholesterol is high, you are going to die”. Unfortunately, the data never supported that spiffy slogan. Epidemiological studies do indicate that if your cholesterol levels are high and you are less than 50 years of age, then there is an increased risk for mortality. After age 50, that risk of increased mortality with high cholesterol disappears (5).

Furthermore, keep in mind that statins were not the first drugs to lower cholesterol. There were many other drugs before the statins, but they had the unfortunate side-effect of increasing mortality. It was only with use of the first statin drugs that decreased mortality was finally shown in those having had a prior heart attack. This is called secondary prevention trial. Aspirin and fish oil are also effective in secondary prevention trials, but neither of those interventions reduces cholesterol (6). However, in primary prevention trials (done with people with no history of heart attacks), statins aren’t very good. This is estimated by looking at a number known as “number needed to treat” or NNT. This number indicates how many people have to take a drug to prevent a single heart attack. With the newest statins, the NNT is usually 2 percent. That means you have to treat 100 people to prevent two heart attacks. Unfortunately you have no idea who those two people are, which means the other 98 people will have a lifetime of side effects. One of those side effects is developing diabetes, which occurs in about 1 percent of the patients (forget the other side effects, such as memory loss, muscle fatigue, etc). Who that one person is out of 100 who will develop diabetes is also unknown. Therefore your chances of reducing a heart attack are significantly cut by the likelihood of increasing your chances of developing diabetes. Some wonder drug!

Finally, defenders of statins for the primary prevention of heart disease point to the recent JUPITER trial (7). This clinical trial used people that had normal levels of LDL cholesterol, but very high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). These people were already inflamed. It should be noted that the drug company that markets the statin drug used in the study funded this particular study. In fact, the government had no interest in the trial. Maybe government officials knew from previous statin trials that in people with normal LDL cholesterol levels and normal levels of CRP that statins had absolutely no benefit in reducing future heart attacks (8). Nonetheless in this small subsection of the population (more than 80 percent of the screened patients were rejected), there was a reduction in first-time heart attacks. But since the patients were highly inflamed to begin with, this means that aspirin or fish oil would probably have given the same result had the same population been tested (9,10). In fact, the JELIS study in Japan confirmed this hypothesis (11). Using the same number of patients, with high cholesterol and lows levels of inflammation (as measured by the AA/EPA ratio), it was demonstrated that those patients given more EPA to lower the AA/EPA ratio had significant reduction in future cardiovascular events. I will make a leap of faith that if the population in the JELIS study was as inflamed as that in the JUPITER study, the results with omega-3 fatty acids would have been even more dramatic.

Lost in all this marketing hype is what actually causes LDL cholesterol to increase in the first place. The answer was known in the 1970s. It’s high levels of insulin (12). This is because insulin activates the same enzyme that statins inhibit. Call me crazy, but it seems to make more sense to lower insulin by the diet rather than taking statins for a lifetime if your goal is to live longer. The best way to lower insulin is the anti-inflammatory Zone Diet coupled with enough fish oil to reduce the AA/EPA ratio to the in the Japanese population range. That’s just good science, not good marketing.

References

  1. Harris G. “Safety alerts cite cholesterol drugs’ side effects.” New York Times, Feb 28. (2012)
  2. Hrboticky N, Tang L, Zimmer B, Lux I, Weber PC. “Lovastatin increases arachidonic acid levels and stimulates thromboxane synthesis in human liver and monocytic cell lines. J Clin Invest 93: 195-203 (1994)
  3. Rise P, Pazzucconi F, Sirtori CR, and Galli C. “Statins enhance arachidonic acid synthesis in hypercholesterolemic patients.”
  4. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis 11:88-94 (2001)
  5. Rise P, Ghezzi S, and Galli C. “Relative potencies of statins in reducing cholesterol synthesis and enhancing linoleic acid metabolism.” Eur J Pharmacol 467:73-75 (2003)
  6. Anderson KM, Castelli WP, and Levy D. “Cholesterol and mortality. 30 years of follow-up from the Framingham study.” JAMA 1987 257:2176-2180 (1987)
  7. Baigent C, Blackwell L, Collins R, Emberson J, Godwin J, Peto R, Buring J, Hennekens C, Kearney P, Meade T, Patrono C, Roncaglioni MC, and Zanchetti A. “Aspirin in the primary and secondary prevention of vascular disease: collaborative meta-analysis of individual participant data from randomised trials.” Lancet 373:1849-1860 (2009)
  8. Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto miocardico. “Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial.” Lancet 354:447-455 (1999)
  9. Wang C, Harris WS, Chung M, Lichtenstein AH, Balk EM, Kupelnick B, Jordan HS, and Lau J. “n-3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not alpha-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review.” Am J Clin Nutr 84:5-17 (2006)
  10. Ridker PM, Danielson E, Fonseca FA, Genest J, Gotto AM, Kastelein JJ, Koenig W, Libby P, Lorenzatti AJ, MacFadyen JG, Nordestgaard BG, Shepherd J, Willerson JT, and Glynn RJ. “Rosuvastatin to prevent vascular events in men and women with elevated C-reactive protein.” N Engl J Med 359:2195-2207 (2008)
  11. Ridker PM, Rifai N, Clearfield M, Downs JR, Weis SE, Miles JS, and Gotto AM. “Measurement of C-reactive protein for the targeting of statin therapy in the primary prevention of acute coronary events.” N Engl J Med 344:1959-1965 (2001)
  12. Yokoyama M, Origasa H, Matsuzaki M, Matsuzawa Y, Saito Y, Ishikawa Y, Oikawa S, Sasaki J, Hishida H, Itakura H, Kita T, Kitabatake A, Nakaya N, Sakata T, Shimada K, and Shirato K. “Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomised open-label, blinded endpoint analysis.” Lancet 369:1090-1098 (2007)
  13. Lakshmanan MR, Nepokroeff CM, Ness GC, Dugan RE, and; Porter JW. “Stimulation by insulin of rat liver hydroxy-β-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase and cholesterol-synthesizing activities.” Biochem Biophys Res Commun 50:704-710 (1973)

What are the real differences between EPA and DHA?

The first casualty of marketing is usually the truth. The reality is that the two key omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) do a lot of different things, and as a result the benefits of EPA and DHA are often very different. That’s why you need them both. But as to why, let me go into more detail.

Benefits of EPA

The ultimate goal of using omega-3 fatty acids is the reduction of cellular inflammation. Since eicosanoids derived from arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid, are the primary mediators of cellular inflammation, EPA is the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids to reduce cellular inflammation for a number of reasons. First, EPA is an inhibitor of the enzyme delta-5-desaturase (D5D) that produces AA (1). The more EPA you have in the diet, the less AA you produce. This essentially chokes off the supply of AA necessary for the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes, etc.)

DHA is not an inhibitor of this enzyme because it can’t fit into the active catalytic site of the enzyme due to its larger spatial size. As an additional insurance policy, EPA also competes with AA for the enzyme phospholipase A2 necessary to release AA from the membrane phospholipids (where it is stored). Inhibition of this enzyme is the mechanism of action used by corticosteroids. If you have adequate levels of EPA to compete with AA (i.e. a low AA/EPA ratio), you can realize many of the benefits of corticosteroids but without their side effects. That’s because if you don’t release AA from the cell membrane, you can’t make inflammatory eicosanoids. Because of its increased spatial dimensions, DHA is not a good competitor of phospholipase A2 relative to EPA. On the other hand, EPA and AA are very similar spatially so they are in constant competition for the phospholipase A2 enzyme, just as both fatty acids are in constant competition for the delta-5 desaturase enzyme. This is why measuring the AA/EPA ratio is such a powerful predictor of the state of cellular inflammation in your body.

The various enzymes (COX and LOX) that make inflammatory eicosanoids can accommodate both AA and EPA, but again due to the greater spatial size of DHA, these enzymes will have difficulty-converting DHA into eicosanoids. This makes DHA a poor substrate for these key inflammatory enzymes. Thus DHA again has little effect on cellular inflammation, whereas EPA can have a powerful impact.

Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually, it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain, it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc., has demonstrated that EPA is superior to DHA (5).

Benefits of DHA

At this point, you might think that DHA is useless. Just the opposite, because DHA can do a lot of different things than EPA and some of them even better.

First is in the area of omega-6 fatty acid metabolism. Whereas EPA is the inhibitor of the enzyme (D5D) that directly produces AA, DHA is an inhibitor of another key enzyme, delta-6-desaturase (D6D), that produces the first metabolite from linoleic acid known as gamma linolenic acid or GLA (6). However, this is not exactly an advantage. Even though reduction of GLA will eventually decrease AA production, it also has the more immediate effect of reducing the production of the next metabolite known as dihomo gamma linolenic acid or DGLA. This can be a disaster as a great number of powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids are derived from DGLA. This is why if you use high-dose DHA, it is essential to add back trace amounts of GLA to maintain sufficient levels of DGLA to continue to make anti-inflammatory eicosanoids.

In my opinion, the key benefit of DHA lies in its unique spatial characteristics. As mentioned earlier, the extra double bonds and length of DHA compared to EPA means it takes up a lot more space in the membrane. Although this increase in spatial volume makes DHA a poor substrate for phospholipase A2 as well as the COX and LOX enzymes, it does a great job of making membranes (especially those in the brain) a lot more fluid as the DHA sweeps out a much greater volume in the membrane than EPA. This increase in membrane fluidity is critical for synaptic vesicles and the retina of the eye because it allows receptors to rotate more effectively, thus increasing the transmission of signals from the surface of the membrane to the interior of the nerve cells. This is why DHA is a critical component of these parts of the nerves (7). On the other hand, the myelin membrane is essentially an insulator so that relatively little DHA is found in that part of the membrane.

This constant sweeping motion of DHA also causes the breakup of lipid rafts in membranes (8). Disruption of these islands of relatively solid lipids makes it more difficult for cancer cells to continue to survive and more difficult for inflammatory cytokines to initiate the signaling responses to turn on inflammatory genes (9). In addition, these greater spatial characteristics of DHA increase the size of LDL particles to a greater extent compared to EPA. As a result DHA helps reduce the entry of these enlarged LDL particles into the muscle cells that line the artery, thus reducing the likelihood of developing atherosclerotic lesions (10). Thus the increased spatial territory swept out by DHA is good news for making certain areas of membranes more fluid or lipoprotein particles larger, even though it reduces the benefits of DHA in competing with AA for key enzymes important in the development of cellular inflammation.

Common Effects for Both EPA and DHA

Not surprisingly, there are some areas in which both EPA and DHA appear to be equally beneficial. For example, both are equally effective in reducing triglyceride levels (10). This is probably due to the relatively equivalent activation of the gene transcription factor (PPAR alpha) that causes the enhanced synthesis of the enzymes that oxidize fats in lipoprotein particles. There is also apparently equal activation of the anti-inflammatory gene transcription factor PPAR-gamma (11). Both seem to be equally effective in making powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids known as resolvins (12). Finally, although both have no effect on total cholesterol levels, DHA can increase the size of LDL particle to a greater extent than EPA can (10).

Summary

EPA and DHA do different things, so you need them both. If your goal is reducing cellular inflammation, then you probably need more EPA than DHA. How much more? Probably twice the levels, but you always cover your bets with omega-3 fatty acids by using both at the same time.

References

  1. Sears B. “The Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (1995)
  2. Chen CT, Liu Z, Ouellet M, Calon F, and Bazinet RP. “Rapid beta-oxidation of eicosapentaenoic acid in mouse brain: an in situ study.” Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 80:157-163 (2009)
  3. Chen CT, Liu Z, and Bazinet RP. “Rapid de-esterification and loss of eicosapentaenoic acid from rat brain phospholipids: an intracerebroventricular study. J Neurochem 116:363-373 (2011)
  4. Umhau JC, Zhou W, Carson RE, Rapoport SI, Polozova A, Demar J, Hussein N, Bhattacharjee AK, Ma K, Esposito G, Majchrzak S, Herscovitch P, Eckelman WC, Kurdziel KA, and Salem N. “Imaging incorporation of circulating docosahexaenoic acid into the human brain using positron emission tomography.” J Lipid Res 50:1259-1268 (2009)
  5. Martins JG. “EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” J Am Coll Nutr 28:525-542 (2009)
  6. Sato M, Adan Y, Shibata K, Shoji Y, Sato H, and Imaizumi K. “Cloning of rat delta 6-desaturase and its regulation by dietary eicosapentaenoic or docosahexaenoic acid.” World Rev Nutr Diet 88:196-199 (2001)
  7. Stillwell W and Wassall SR. “Docosahexaenoic acid: membrane properties of a unique fatty acid. Chem Phys Lipids 126:1-27 (2003)
  8. Chapkin RS, McMurray DN, Davidson LA, Patil BS, Fan YY, and Lupton JR. “Bioactive dietary long-chain fatty acids: emerging mechanisms of action.” Br J Nutr 100:1152-1157 (2008)
  9. Li Q, Wang M, Tan L, Wang C, Ma J, Li N, Li Y, Xu G, and Li J. “Docosahexaenoic acid changes lipid composition and interleukin-2 receptor signaling in membrane rafts.” J Lipid Res 46:1904-1913 (2005)
  10. Mori TA, Burke V, Puddey IB, Watts GF, O’Neal DN, Best JD, and Beilin LJ. “Purified eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids have differential effects on serum lipids and lipoproteins, LDL particle size, glucose, and insulin in mildly hyperlipidemic men.” Am J Clin Nutr 71:1085-1094 (2000)
  11. Li H, Ruan XZ, Powis SH, Fernando R, Mon WY, Wheeler DC, Moorhead JF, and Varghese Z. “EPA and DHA reduce LPS-induced inflammation responses in HK-2 cells: evidence for a PPAR-gamma-dependent mechanism.” Kidney Int 67:867-874 (2005)
  12. Serhan CN, Hong S, Gronert K, Colgan SP, Devchand PR, Mirick G, and Moussignac RL. “Resolvins: a family of bioactive products of omega-3 fatty acid transformation circuits initiated by aspirin treatment that counter proinflammation signals.” J Exp Med 1996:1025-1037