Cholesterol is a waxy substance that’s found in the fats (lipids) in your blood. While your body needs cholesterol to continue building healthy cells, having high cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.
When you have high cholesterol, you may develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits make it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. Your heart may not get as much oxygen-rich blood as it needs, which increases the risk of a heart attack. Decreased blood flow to your brain can cause a stroke.
High cholesterol can be inherited, but it’s often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, and thus preventable and treatable. A healthy diet, regular exercise and sometimes medication can go a long way toward reducing high cholesterol.
High cholesterol has no symptoms. A blood test is the only way to detect high cholesterol.
Lifestyle changes such as exercising and eating a healthy diet are the first line of defense against high cholesterol. But, if you’ve made these important lifestyle changes and your cholesterol levels remain high, your doctor may recommend medication.
The specific choice of medication or combination of medications depends on various factors, including your individual risk factors, your age, your current health and possible side effects. Common choices include:
- Statins. Statins block a substance your liver needs to make cholesterol. This causes your liver to remove cholesterol from your blood. Statins may also help your body reabsorb cholesterol from built-up deposits on your artery walls, potentially reversing coronary artery disease. Choices include atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Altoprev), pitavastatin (Livalo), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and simvastatin (Zocor).
- Bile-acid-binding resins. Your liver uses cholesterol to make bile acids, a substance needed for digestion. The medications cholestyramine (Prevalite), colesevelam (Welchol) and colestipol (Colestid) lower cholesterol indirectly by binding to bile acids. This prompts your liver to use excess cholesterol to make more bile acids, which reduces the level of cholesterol in your blood.
- Cholesterol absorption inhibitors. Your small intestine absorbs the cholesterol from your diet and releases it into your bloodstream. The drug ezetimibe (Zetia) helps reduce blood cholesterol by limiting the absorption of dietary cholesterol. Ezetimibe can be used in combination with a statin drug.
- Injectable medications. A new class of drugs can help the liver absorb more LDL cholesterol — which lowers the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood. Alirocumab (Praluent) and evolocumab (Repatha) may be used for people who have a genetic condition that causes very high levels of LDL or in people with a history of coronary disease who have intolerance to statins or other cholesterol medications.
Medications for high triglycerides
If you also have high triglycerides, your doctor may prescribe:
- Fibrates. The medications fenofibrate (TriCor, Fenoglide, others) and gemfibrozil (Lopid) decrease triglycerides by reducing your liver’s production of very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol and by speeding up the removal of triglycerides from your blood. VLDL cholesterol contains mostly triglycerides.
- Niacin. Niacin decreases triglycerides by limiting your liver’s ability to produce LDL and VLDL cholesterol. But niacin doesn’t provide any additional benefit than using statins alone. Niacin has also been linked to liver damage and stroke, so most doctors now recommend it only for people who can’t take statins.
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplements. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements can help lower your triglycerides. They are available by prescription or over-the-counter. If you choose to take over-the-counter supplements, get your doctor’s OK first. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements could affect other medications you’re taking.
Tolerance of medications varies from person to person. The common side effects are muscle pains, stomach pain, constipation, nausea and diarrhea. If you decide to take cholesterol medication, your doctor may recommend liver function tests to monitor the medication’s effect on your liver.
Children and cholesterol treatment
Diet and exercise are the best initial treatment for children age 2 and older who have high cholesterol or who are obese. Children age 10 and older might be prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as statins, if they have extremely high cholesterol levels.
Few natural products have been proven to reduce cholesterol, but some might be helpful. With your doctor’s OK, consider these cholesterol-lowering supplements and products:
- Beta-sitosterol (found in oral supplements and some margarines, such as Promise Activ)
- Blond psyllium (found in seed husk and products such as Metamucil)
- Oat bran (found in oatmeal and whole oats)
- Sitostanol (found in oral supplements and some margarines, such as Benecol)
Some red yeast rice products contain monacolin K, which is chemically identical to the prescription drug lovastatin. The FDA has prohibited the sale of these products, since there’s no way to determine the quantity or quality of the active ingredient.
If you choose to take cholesterol-lowering supplements, remember the importance of a healthy lifestyle. If your doctor prescribes medication to reduce your cholesterol, take it as directed. Make sure your doctor knows which supplements you’re taking as well.