Do You Really Need Maximum-Dose Lipitor®?August 2007
By Jay S. Cohen, MD
Questions and Answers: What should I do if I am taking Lipitor®?
If you are doing well on Lipitor®, you don’t have to change anything. If Lipitor® has helped you reach your cholesterol goals, and it is not causing any side effects, you are getting a good result.
Lipitor® and other statins are important drugs that help millions of people. I support the use of statin drugs when they are used appropriately. Even maximum-dose Lipitor® has its uses, but it should be reserved for people who have a very high risk of cardiovascular disease or who do not obtain adequate LDL reduction with lower statin doses.
What should I do if I am experiencing side effects with Lipitor®?
Tell your doctor and ask about reducing the dose. This often solves the problem. If your side effects involve serious muscle or abdominal pain, call your doctor right away.
It is very important for doctors to handle statin side effects quickly and effectively. Side effects are a main reason that so millions of people discontinue statin treatment. The fact that this occurs is a failure of the medical system. When statins are used carefully, starting with lower, safer doses, fewer side effects occur and more people stay in treatment. If a lower dose is not strong enough, it can then be increased.
My doctor wants to switch me to another statin. Is that okay?
When side effects occur, the choice is either to reduce the dose of the current statin or to switch to another. Either approach is fine, but if you are switched, make sure your doctor prescribes a lower, milder dose of the new statin. For example, if your doctor is switching you from maximum-dose 80-mg Lipitor® to Zocor®, make sure that he drops the Zocor® dose down, perhaps to 40 or 20 mg. Or he can switch you to another statin such as Pravachol® or Mevacor®. High-potency statins such as Lipitor® and Zocor® are not needed by everyone with elevated cholesterol. Many people get good results with milder statins, which have a lower risk of side effects.
I am doing well on Lipitor®, but it is very expensive. What do you think of switching to a generic?
Cost is an important consideration in choosing a statin medication. Today, three statin drugs are available as generics: lovastatin, pravastatin, and simvastatin. Simvastatin is the closest of the three to Lipitor® in its cholesterol-lowering potency.
Be sure to shop around, because prices of generic statins vary widely from pharmacy to pharmacy.
My total cholesterol is 160 mg/dL and my LDL is 110 mg/dL. Because I have coronary artery disease, my doctor says I should be on a statin. Do you agree?
The current guidelines for LDL goals are most stringent for people at high risk. These include people with a history of heart attack, angina, coronary artery disease, or diabetes. The current goal for high-risk people is a LDL below 100 mg/dL, and in some cases below 70 mg/dL. Because your LDL is only 110, you may be able to accomplish this with a low-dose statin. Indeed, you may not need a statin at all if you adopt a heart-healthy nutritional program as well soluble fiber, fish oil, CoQ10, plant phytosterols/ stanols, small amounts of red wine (1-2 glasses daily), regular exercise, and stopping smoking.
My total cholesterol is 180 mg/dL and my LDL is 120 mg/dL. I am completely healthy and have no family history of heart disease or stroke. My doctor says I need to take a statin to lower my LDL. Do you agree?
Current guidelines state that for people at low risk, cholesterol below 200 mg/dL and LDL lower than 160 mg/dL is fine. A LDL of 160 mg/dL or above should be lowered, but treatment should start with nutritional and lifestyle changes rather than with prescription drugs. Natural therapies can also be very helpful in reducing a moderately elevated LDL.
Life Extension believes that most people should seek to keep LDL below 100 mg/dL. In the case presented above, however, the total cholesterol is already low, so attempts to reduce the LDL lower could also reduce the total cholesterol too much (below 150 mg/dL). A LDL of 120 mg/dL may be acceptable, yet anyone with a LDL reading near 160 mg/dL or above should seek to reduce it with natural approaches, and if necessary, a standard-dose statin.
Life Extension recommends obtaining a VAP® (vertical auto profile) cholesterol analysis to assess LDL particle size, lipoprotein(a) levels, and other factors that indicate atherogenic potential. It is also critical to address other cardiovascular risk factors besides cholesterol, such as triglycerides, homocysteine, fibrinogen, CRP, elevated fasting plasma glucose, obesity, and hypertension—ALL of which are important risk factors for heart attack and stroke.
My doctor seems to want to reduce every patient’s LDL to 70 mg/dL. Is this a good idea?
Although there is evidence that aggressive LDL reduction is helpful for people with heart disease, current guidelines do not support the aggressive treatment of healthy people. The push for stronger and stronger statins for everyone stems from intensive marketing campaigns, as seen with the maximum-dose Lipitor® onslaught.
This has led to a great deal of confusion among doctors and patients. Many people are put on statins although they do not really need them. Others receive far stronger statins than they need and become overmedicated. To avoid these problems, you should ask your doctor some questions if he or she recommends a statin for you. Why do you think I need a statin? What is my LDL goal? I would prefer to start with a milder statin dose in order to avoid side effects—what do you think? What about trying nutritional approaches for reducing LDL first? Is my HDL okay?
My cholesterol numbers are good, except that I have a low HDL. Should I be concerned?
Some experts believe that the most important cholesterol test is neither your total cholesterol nor your LDL, but instead your level of HDL, the beneficial blood lipid. Studies suggest that in women, a low HDL is a more worrisome risk factor than a high LDL.
Dr. Davis states, “High cholesterol is among the risk factors for heart disease, but is not the leading risk factor. The most prevalent risk factor is low HDL, along with small LDL particles, which commonly occur together. In fact, of every 100 people with coronary heart disease, 60-70 will have low HDL and small LDL particles, but fewer than 30 will have high LDL. Why do we not hear more about low HDL and small LDL particles? Because treating these is not as profitable for drug companies.”9
My doctor says that LDL is only one of several risk factors that should be considered before prescribing anything. Do you agree?
Your doctor is one of many who now recognize that LDL is only one of several important risk factors for heart disease. In recent years, an elevated C-reactive protein level has been identified as a sign of arterial inflammation. Elevated fibrinogen can lead to sticky platelets and an increased risk of heart attacks, especially in women. Triglycerides are waxy substances that increase your risk; if elevated, control of carbohydrate intake is required. As mentioned previously, the VAP® test can identify your level of small particle LDL, which defines whether your LDL is dangerous or not. The VAP® will also determine your level of lipoprotein(a), which some experts consider as important a cardiovascular risk factor as elevated LDL.
Tests for these factors should be performed on people with cardiovascular disease or at high risk of developing it. Testing should also be done on anyone interested in knowing about possible risks for cardiovascular disease.
I often encounter side effects with medications. How can I avoid side effects with a statin?
Most statin side effects are dose-related. The higher the dose, the greater the risk. This was seen in both the TNT heart study and the stroke study, in which maximum-dose Lipitor® caused more side effects, more liver injuries, and more deaths from non-cardiovascular causes. Maximum-dose Lipitor® also caused more people to discontinue treatment. This is a huge problem in medical care today: side effects are one of the reasons that millions of people quit statin treatment each year.
If you want to avoid side effects, ask your doctor about starting with a low dose. You should also ask about starting with a moderate-potency statin, such as pravastatin, instead of a high-potency statin.
Studies show that some people obtain excellent responses to small doses of statins and do not need a higher dose. For example, in a study using just 2.5 mg of Zocor®, 18 people obtained LDL reductions of 40% or greater.15 This was an unexpected yet excellent result.
If a low statin dose does not reduce your LDL adequately, your doctor can gradually increase the dose until you reach your LDL goal. This “start low, go slow” method is recommended by the FDA, especially for older people starting a statin.16 A “start low” approach works anyone who wants to emphasize safety with statin drugs.
Cardiologists have reported that their patients who concomitantly use coenzyme Q10 with statin drugs seem to suffer fewer drug side effects such as muscle aches and pains. This observation is supported by a recent study that found that 30 days of treatment with coenzyme Q10 decreased muscle pain related to statin medications by a dramatic 40%.17
I do not like taking medications. Are there natural alternatives that reduce LDL?
Start with nutrition. A heart-healthy diet (reduced saturated fat and simple sugar intake) can lower cholesterol levels as much as a moderate-strength statin.
Supplements for reducing LDL include red yeast rice (do not use with a statin), niacin (which lowers LDL and raises beneficial HDL), and plant sterols (which block cholesterol absorption from the intestine).
Other supplements to consider for heart health are magnesium and coenzyme Q10. Regular consumption of wild salmon or sardines, or daily fish oil capsules, can reduce the risk of death from a heart attack as much as a statin drug.18
If you are interested in using non-drug therapies, work with a health care professional who is knowledgeable about natural approaches and products.
I have heart disease, and my doctor wants to prescribe maximum-dose Lipitor®. What alternatives do I have?
As Dr. Pitt suggested in his editorial against maximum-dose Lipitor®, substantial LDL reduction can be accomplished with a moderate dose of a statin combined with other therapies. These include Zetia® (ezetimibe) and Welchol® (colesevelam), which block cholesterol absorption in the intestine, and a similar effect can be obtained with natural plant sterols. Or ask your doctor about combining modest doses of a statin and a niacin product.
Many people think statins provide 100% protection against heart attacks, but the effect is about 30%. In other words, if 100 people likely to have a heart attack are placed on statins, about thirty will avoid the heart attack. Seventy will not. No treatment, natural or prescription, provides full protection against heart disease. This is why people need to use all of the therapies—nutritional, natural and, if necessary, medications—to reduce their risk as much as possible. Your treatment should be individualized. Treatment may differ from person to person because different people have different risks and goals, and thus need different therapies. Shotgun, one-size-fits-all therapies should be avoided. If your doctor insists that maximum-dose Lipitor® is the only solution, get a second opinion.
Jay S. Cohen, MD, is an associate professor of family and preventive medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Cohen is a nationally recognized expert on medications and their side effects. He has published books and medical journal articles and has spoken at major conferences and at the US Food and Drug Administration regarding the need for improved drug safety. Dr. Cohen also provides expert analyses and opinions in cases involving medication-induced injuries. His most recent book, What You Must Know About Statin Drugs and Their Natural Alternatives (Square One Publishers, 2006) explains who needs to reduce cholesterol or other risk factors for heart disease, and how they can do so safely. For more information, visit Dr. Cohen’s website at www.MedicationSense.com.
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