Statins are medicines that help lower the cholesterol levels in your blood, by reducing the amount of of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘bad’ cholesterol that is produced in your liver. Large amounts of LDL can lead to the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, which in turn can cause heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems.
Statins are most commonly prescribed to people with a pre-existing cardiovascular condition, a family history of bad heart health, or someone with a very high cholesterol level. They are also the most commonly prescribed medicine in the UK - due in part to the fact that they must be taken on a permanent basis once they are started, as cholesterol levels can become high again after stopping statins.
What causes high cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that plays a vital role in the human body, maintaining the structural integrity of cells and allowing them to move freely through blood vessels. Cholesterol binds with proteins in the blood, allowing it to be transported around the body. It exists in this form in two different variations:
- low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which carries cholesterol from the cells back to the liver
High-density lipoprotein is often referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol, as it carries cholesterol to the liver where it is broken down, while low-density lipoprotein is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol as it can build up in the walls of blood vessels if it is not used by cells.
Many things can contribute to high levels of LDL in the blood, including:
- genetics (i.e. a family history of high cholesterol, high blood pressure or heart disease)
- age (the older you are, the less efficient your liver is at processing cholesterol)
- ethnicity (people of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi descent are more likely to suffer from high cholesterol)
- underlying health problems (diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease and an underactive thyroid can all contribute to high cholesterol)
Commonly, however, high levels of bad cholesterol are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, characterised by the following factors.
Eating lots of foods that contain large amounts of saturated fats can lead to high levels of LDL. Foods containing saturated fat include sausages, butter, cream, hard cheese and foods containing palm or coconut oil. Drinking lots of alcohol is also known to exacerbate bad cholesterol.
Cigarettes contain a chemical called acrolein, which has been found to prevent HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) from transporting fatty deposits to the liver to be broken down.
Lack of exercise
Taking regular exercise increases the levels of HDL cholesterol and lowers LDL cholesterol levels. Avoiding exercise can lead to weight gain, which increases the risk of higher levels of bad cholesterol.
Do I need to take statins?
For many people, the best option to lower high cholesterol is to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Some ways that you can get healthier and reduce the level of LDL in your blood include:
- eating unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats (e.g. avocados, oily fish, nuts and seeds, sunflower oil)
- eating fibre (e.g. wholegrain rice, bread and pasta)
- eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
- giving up smoking
- doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week
- drinking less alcohol
However, some people may also require statins to reduce their levels of bad cholesterol. This includes people who have had a heart attack or stroke, diabetics, and those with a family history of high cholesterol.
Some people with liver disease may not be able to take statins as they can interfere with liver function and exacerbate existing conditions.
How do I take statins?
Statins need to be taken every day (most people take them before they go to bed), and will probably need to be taken for the rest of your life to prevent your cholesterol levels from rising again.
As with all medicines, statins are associated with some side effects. However, these are generally very mild (the most common ones include a headache and muscle pains). Statins can interact with other prescription and non-prescription medicines. For more information, consult your Patient Information Leaflet, or talk to your doctor.