Alternatives to Statins for Lowering Cholesterol

Weigh your options.

What Are Statins?

Statins are prescription drugs designed to lower cholesterol. Statins function by inhibiting an enzyme needed to produce cholesterol in the liver. Without the help of that enzyme, your body cannot transform the fat you consume into cholesterol.

Having too much cholesterol in your arteries is dangerous because it can build up plaque. A build-up of plaque can prevent blood from flowing properly and can increase the risk of a heart attack.

Find the Best Statins for High Cholesterol »

Types of Statins Available

There are several types of statins available. Although all statins work in the same way, your body might respond better to one type than another. This is why doctors sometimes try several types of statins before they can find the right one for you.

Some statins are more likely to interact with other drugs or organic compounds. For example, the statins Lipitor (atorvastatin), Pravachol (pravastatin) and Zocor (simvastatin) can interact with grapefruit juice, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The interaction can be very dangerous, since mixing these drugs with grapefruit can increase the amount of medication in the bloodstream and cause serious side effects.

Risks and Side Effects

Although most people benefit from statins, the drugs can have side effects. The most serious side effects occur in people who are taking other medications or who have an underlying health condition. Many side effects go away as your body adapts to the medication.

The most common side effect of statins is muscle and joint aches and pains, according to the Mayo Clinic. The medication can also cause nausea and vomiting. More serious side effects include liver and kidney damage, an increase in blood sugar, and neurological side effects. In some people, statins can cause a breakdown in muscle cells and lead to permanent muscle damage.

New Drugs Available

If you’re not a good candidate for statins or if you are suffering from serious side effects, your doctor can prescribe a different drug to treat high cholesterol. A common alternative is a cholesterol absorption inhibitor.

These drugs prevent your small intestine from properly absorbing the cholesterol you consume from your diet. If the cholesterol cannot be absorbed, it won’t reach your bloodstream. The only cholesterol absorption inhibitor available on the market is the drug ezetimibe (Zetia).  

Ezetimibe can be combined with statins to produce faster results. However, many doctors prescribe ezetimibe alone and combine it with a low-fat diet to help reduce cholesterol.

Other Options

Another alternative to statins is bile-acid-binding resins or sequestrants. These drugs work by binding to the bile in your intestines, blocking cholesterol absorption into your bloodstream.

According to the National Library of Medicine, bile acid resins are the oldest drugs available to treat high cholesterol. They are not as strong as other drugs, so they are often used by people with only moderately high levels of cholesterol.

Bile acid resins can cause vitamin deficiencies when taken for a long time. Vitamin K deficiency is especially dangerous because this is the vitamin that helps stop bleeding.

Medications for High Triglycerides

Many people who have high cholesterol also have high triglycerides (a type of fat found in your blood). Some medications can help lower high triglycerides directly. Once triglyceride levels go down, the total amount of cholesterol is also lowered.

A common prescription for high triglycerides is niacin or vitamin B3. Niacin can help lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL).

Niacin is a good option for people who don’t respond well to other medications because its side effects are mild. People taking this medication might experience flushing of the face, headaches, upset stomach and sweating. Dizziness, lightheadedness, and nausea may also occur.

Lifestyle Modifications

Changing the way you eat can play an important role in lowering your cholesterol. According to the National Institutes of Health, you can have a LDL cholesterol reduction of up to 30 percent just by making simple changes in your diet. This is similar to the results you would get from some cholesterol-lowering drugs.

To lower cholesterol, you should start by decreasing the amount of saturated (animal) fat you eat. You also need to add 5-10 grams of fiber to your diet every day.  If you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 pounds can reduce your cholesterol by up to eight percent.

What Else You Need to Know

Your best choice of treatment depends on many factors. Before choosing a prescription medication, your doctor will look at your family medical history, your risk for heart disease, and your lifestyle.

Many doctors prefer to start with lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise. If that alone doesn’t work or if your cholesterol is very high, you might start taking medication to help the process along. 

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