Lipid levels can be lowered with lifestyle changes, medications, or a combination of these approaches. In certain cases, a clinician will recommend a trial of lifestyle changes before recommending a medication.
Lifestyle changes - All the patients with high LDL cholesterol should try to make some changes in their day-to-day habits, by reducing total and saturated fat in the diet, losing weight (if overweight or obese), performing aerobic exercise, and eating plant stanols/sterols.
The benefits of such lifestyle modifications may be evident within 6 to 12 months. However, the success of lipid lowering with lifestyle modification varies widely, and clinicians may elect to begin drug therapy before this time period is over.
Medications - There are many medications available to help lower elevated levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, but only a few for increasing HDL cholesterol. Each category of medication targets a specific lipid and varies in how it works, how effective it is, and how much it costs. Your healthcare provider will recommend a medication or combination of medications based on blood lipid levels and other individual factors.
Statins - Statins are the most powerful drugs for lowering LDL cholesterol and are the most effective drug for prevention of coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and death. Statins include lovastatin, pravastatin, simvastatin, fluvastatin, atorvastatin, and rosuvastatin These medications decrease the body's synthesis of cholesterol and can reduce LDL levels by as much as 20 to 60 percent. In addition, statins can lower triglycerides and slightly raise HDL cholesterol levels.
Statins have fewer side effects than other cholesterol-lowering medications. It is important to closely follow the dosing instructions for when to take statins; some are more effective when taken before bedtime while others should be taken with a meal.
In addition, some foods, such as grapefruit or grapefruit juice, can increase the risk of side effects of statins. Most manufacturers recommend that people who take lovastatin, simvastatin, or atorvastatin consume no more than one-half of a grapefruit or 8 ounces of grapefruit juice per day.
Ezetimibe - Ezetimibe (Zetia®) impairs the body's ability to absorb cholesterol from food as well as cholesterol that the body produces internally. It lowers LDL levels when used alone. It has relatively few side effects when used alone.
However, there are no studies that demonstrate better outcomes in patients who take ezetimibe, either alone or in combination with other cholesterol-lowering medications. Further study is needed before ezetimibe is recommended as a first-line treatment.
Bile acid sequestrants - The bile acid sequestrants include cholestyramine, colestipol, and colesevelam (table 2). These medications bind (combine with) bile acids in the intestine, reducing the amount of cholesterol absorbed from foods.
Bile acid sequestrants may be recommended to treat mild to moderately elevated LDL cholesterol levels. However, side effects can be bothersome, and may include nausea, bloating, cramping, and liver injury. Taking psyllium (a fiber supplement, such as Metamucil®) can sometimes reduce the dose required and the side effects.
Bile acid sequestrants can interact with some medications, including as digoxin (Lanoxin®) and warfarin (Coumadin®), and with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (including vitamins A, D, K, and E). Taking these medications at different times of day can solve these problems in some cases.
Nicotinic acid (Niacin) - Nicotinic acid is a vitamin that is available in immediate-release, sustained-release, and extended-release formulations. It lowers levels of both Nicotinic acid may be recommended for people with elevated cholesterol levels and some types of familial hyperlipidemia.
- Side effects - Nicotinic acidhas several possible side effects, including flushing (when the face or body turns red and becomes warm), itching, nausea, and numbness and tingling. This medication can also injure the liver; patients who use it require regular monitoring of liver function.
Taking nicotinic acid with food and taking aspirin (325 to 650 mg) 30 minutes before can decrease the side effects. Side effects often improve after 7 to 10 days. The immediate-release formulation is more likely to produce side effects, but is also more effective at lowering cholesterol levels and less likely to injure the liver than certain sustained-release formulations. The sustained-release and extended-release formulations have fewer side effects and are usually taken at night with a meal or snack.
Nicotinic acid can produce other side effects in some people, including insulin resistance, which can increase blood glucose levels in diabetics. It can increase uric acid levels in people with gout and is not recommended for this group. Nicotinic acid can also produce low blood pressure in people taking vasodilator medications such as nitroglycerin, and it can sometimes worsen angina pectoris (chest pain).
Fibrates - Fibrate medications (gemfibrozil, fenofibrate and fenofibric acid) can lower triglyceride levels and raise HDL cholesterol levels.
Fibrates may be recommended for people with elevated triglyceride levels and hyperlipidemia. Fibrates have been associated with muscle toxicity (causing muscle pain or weakness), especially when used by people with kidney insufficiency or when used in combination with a statin medication. Fenofibrate/fenofibric acid (Tricor®, Triglide®, Trilipex®) are less likely to interact with statins than gemfibrozil, and are safer in people who must use both medications.