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The lowdown on statins…

Over 7 million of us Brits are taking statins to lower the level of low-density lipoprotein – also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol – in the blood.  Here we look at the benefits and side effects of taking these drugs.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood.  Everyone has cholesterol and we need it to stay healthy but if we have too much then it can clog arteries which in turn can increase our risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Why are statins prescribed?

Statins can lower ‘bad’ cholesterol by up to 50% and they will also increase your ‘good’ cholesterol.  Even if your cholesterol is not high, doctors may prescribe a statin to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

A medical recommendation to take statins will be based on a number of factors and these may include:

  • High blood pressure
  • If you have already suffered a stroke or heart attack
  • A family history of heart disease or high cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Your weight
  • Your ethnicity – the World Health Organisation report that South Asians, for example, are at a higher risk of developing heart disease
  • Diabetes – according to Diabetes UK, people with diabetes are between two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.

Even in those people who have diabetes with a low cholesterol level it has been shown that statins can reduce the rate of developing cardiovascular disease.

Are there any side effects of taking statins?

All medicines carry side effects but for the majority of people taking statins the benefits of the reduced risk of developing a heart attack or stroke vastly outweighs the risk.  A doctor will consider each individual case carefully with these side effects in mind before recommending statins.

Side effects tend to be minor, such as: nausea, headaches, cold-like symptoms, nosebleeds, difficulty sleeping, facial flushing.  Further side effects may be a change in bowel habits or flatulence, skin rashes have been reported and there is some evidence of mild memory loss.

Occasionally there are muscle problems with taking statins, so if there is any muscle pain, tenderness or weakness then you should get it checked out with your doctor.

If you find you are suffering side effects that you are unable to manage then changing to a different make of statin may help.

A further side effect is poor liver function which is rare and doctors routinely check for this.

Underactive thyroid and statins

An underactive thyroid can increase cholesterol levels.  If you are taking thyroxine and statins then you are more likely to suffer from muscle damage.  If there is any unexplained muscle pain or weakness then you must speak with your doctor as soon as you can.

Is it possible to stopping taking statins?

The general rule of thumb for being prescribed statins is when your 10 year risk of having a heart attack or stroke is deemed to be over 20%.  However, if your risk is only just above this and you have made efforts to eat a healthy balanced diet and/or lost weight for instance then your GP may be happy for you to stop taking statins for a time and then check your cholesterol levels and recalculate your risk.

Losing weight will reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol and increase ‘good’ cholesterol and may even improve blood pressure.  However, any weight lost will have to be maintained to stay off statins in the long term.

Statins and grapefruit – why don’t they mix?

Grapefruit contain a group of chemicals called furanocoumarins.

If you eat grapefruit whilst on statins then the furanocoumarins will inhibit the enzyme that breaks down statins.  This can result in more of the active drug in the body than was intended with the prescribed dose which can trigger unpleasant and potentially serious side effects, such as rhabdomyolysis.

Rhabdomyolysis is the breakdown of muscle fibres which allows myoglobin to be released into the bloodstream and too much myoglobin in the blood can cause kidney damage.

Can taking statins affect your sex life?

Erectile dysfunction is a side effect of many medications and may be a problem; however, many patients report that taking statins can help with erectile function because as well as improving blood flow to the heart or the brain, statins improve the flow of blood in the arteries supplying the penis too.

If you are worried, however, it is important not to stop taking medication without getting advice from your doctor first.  Your GP could prescribe a different dose or change you to a different statin or even consider an alternative medicine which will help to lower your cholesterol.

What can I do to help myself?

Even if you have been prescribed statins there are some simple lifestyle changes you can make which will help to keep your cholesterol down.  These include:

  • Eating a healthy diet, low in saturated fats
  • Taking regular exercise
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking less alcohol

Try switching from butter to low fat spreads or olive oil.  Eat less biscuits, cakes, cheese and cream.  Stay away from fatty cuts of meat, sausages and bacon.  Look for the red labels on packaging as these will contain food that is high in saturated fats.

Learn more about saturated and non-saturated fats here.

Visit our diet and exercise section for tips on how to get fitter and eat more healthily.

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