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Do You Really Need a Statin to Lower Cholesterol?


Potential Side Effects

Like any medicine, statins can interact with other medicines you take, and they can have side effects:

  • More common: Headache, GI problems, muscle and joint aches, or rash
  • Less common: Memory loss, mental confusion, high blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes
  • Very rarely: Muscle or liver damage

Research shows that some people with muscle aches from statins feel better when they take extra CoQ10, a substance your body makes to help cells produce energy.  Don’t take CoQ10 supplments on your own, however. Work with your doctor when you take any supplement.

Overall, the risks of taking statins are very low -- lower than the risks from taking two aspirin a day, McBride says. "The benefits are well-established, with hundreds of thousands of people studied in clinical trials.”

Other Options

Some people take supplements along with statins, or -- if their cholesterol isn't too high -- instead of them. There's good evidence that some supplements can help with cholesterol levels.

  • Fish oil can lower triglycerides by up to 50% and improve HDL levels, the “good” cholesterol. People in most studies showing a benefit have taken 1 to 4 grams of fish oil a day. While usually well-tolerated, fish oil supplements can cause a fishy aftertaste, heartburn, or upset stomach.
  • Sterols and stanols are available in supplements and are also added to foods such as some margarines, orange juice, or yogurt. These can lower LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, by up to 15%. Cholesterol experts recommend 2 grams per day. 

Soluble fiber -- available in supplements such as psyllium as well as in food -- can lower LDL cholesterol.. For every 5 to 10 grams that you add to your diet, you can lower your levels by up to 5%. Try to get at least 25 to 30 grams of total fiber a day. Most fruits, vegetables, and oats have both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If you’re not sure why your doctor prescribed statins to lower your cholesterol, ask at your next appointment.

  • Why do you think I need a statin?
  • What will it do for me? 
  • Based on my specific health, what might I gain from taking one and what are my risks?
  • Could a statin interact with any medicines or supplements I’m taking?
  • When will I know if this drug is working?
  • Can I take a supplement instead of -- or along with -- a statin to lower my cholesterol? 
  • What supplements or treatments will ease side effects?

Miller tells his patients to look at statins like a daily vitamin to boost health. "In many ways, that’s what it is," he says, "and it’s the only one that we know that works so well to improve cholesterol and lower cardiovascular risk."

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Reviewed on September 06, 2012
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