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The statin debate

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What are statins?
Statins are drugs that help to lower the rates of 'bad' LDL cholesterol in your blood. They work by blocking the substance HMG-CoA reductase (found in the liver) from producing cholesterol.  

Around 7 million people in the UK take statins and it is estimated that statins save 7,000 lives per year in the UK.

Why do people take statins?
High cholesterol has a significant impact on your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, stroke, heart failure and heart attack, which is thought to be responsible for more than 161,000 deaths in the UK each year.

Because statins help to lower cholesterol, they are commonly used as treatment for those at risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

“They have also been shown to have reasonable benefit when taken by people with established heart disease, such as those who have already had a heart attack”, says world-leading cardiologist, Dr Ross Walker.

What are the side effects of taking statins?
As well as lowering cholesterol, statins also reduce the amount of the essential nutrient co-enzyme Q10 (coQ10) in your body.

CoQ10 is found naturally in our cells and plays a key role in energy production. Because of this, taking statins can cause fatigue, muscle weakness and/or muscle pain.

Other known side effects of statins include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Short-term memory loss

  • Nerve damage that causes numbness, tingling and/or weakness

  • Liver damage

  • Increased risk of diabetes

“Although many of my patients can tolerate statins, as many as 50 per cent of patients experience either muscle aching, stiffness, weakness, cramping, or even atrophy, when taking them”, says Dr Ross Walker.

“Many people also suffer problems with memory, concentration, depression, fatigue, anxiety, irritability and sleep.”

“To reduce the risk of statin-associated side-effects, I suggest anyone taking statins should take a Ubiquinol supplement (between 150–300mg daily). Ubiquinol is the active version of co-enzyme Q10.

What are the alternatives to taking statins?
Plant sterols may be a good addition to statin drug therapy. Plant sterols are natural plant substances that closely resemble animal sterols such as cholesterol. This similarity means they can block the absorption of cholesterol from your diet to significantly lower your blood cholesterol levels.

How do plant sterols work?

The cholesterol in your blood comes from two different sources. Some cholesterol is produced in your liver (around 800mg per day) while the rest of your cholesterol is absorbed from your intestines (around 1000mg per day: 300mg from your diet, 700mg recycled from bile).

Statins work by inhibiting an enzyme in the liver, so less cholesterol is made and pushed out into your circulation. Plant sterols reduce the amount of cholesterol that is absorbed into your small intestines. As less cholesterol is absorbed, more is emptied via the bowels.

Because they work in a different way to statins, plant sterols can be combined with statins to lower cholesterol levels even further. In fact, studies have shown that adding plant sterols to statin medication is more effective at reducing cholesterol than doubling the statin dose.

How can I get plant sterols?
Plant sterols are found naturally in many plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and grains, and vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower and olive oils.

Although diet should always come first, it can be difficult to get the amount of plant sterols needed to help lower cholesterol just from food. Studies into plant sterols suggest that intakes of around 1 - 1.5g per day are ideal, thought this is a level usually achieved with the help of plant sterol supplements.


The Nutrition Expert editorial team compiles articles with the help of Healthspan's experts to answer key questions from our community as well as researching common health topics and news.

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Nutrition Expert sources the latest information and advice from a range of qualified doctors, nutritionists and coaches. We always endeavour to have the most up to date information possible and publish new content weekly. However with the constant research in this field sometimes some of our older articles can become out of date. If you see anything that you believe needs to be updated please let us know via our Contact Us page