Statins: How the drug prevents heart attacks and strokes

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Statins are a wonder drug. They have thrown a lifeline to vast numbers of people at risk of heart disease. The drug reduces the production of cholesterol inside the liver, which is central to staving off cardiovascular complications. The benefits of taking statins are therefore manifest, but they have to be respected.

Statins are an incredibly powerful class of drugs, so it matters how you take them.

If you’re fond of a tipple, you’ll be relieved to know you can still drink alcohol and take statins.

However, you have to be sensible, notes the NHS.

“If you’re prescribed a statin, you may be able to continue drinking alcohol. However, you should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week.”

The health body continues: “The doctor will also ask you how much alcohol you drink before prescribing statins.”

It adds: “People who regularly drink large amounts of alcohol are at increased risk of getting more serious side effects.”

How worried should you be?

As Harvard Health points out, high doses of alcohol can damage the liver, which is relevant to statin users since about two percent of people who take these drugs develop chemical evidence of liver inflammation.

“Fortunately, the inflammation is usually mild; it resolves when statins are stopped, but many doctors believe it’s safe to continue statin therapy even if mild liver test abnormalities develop.”

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Does low-dose alcohol increase the likelihood that a statin will cause liver inflammation? A 2006 Harvard study evaluated the question in 1,244 men who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery.

The men were randomly assigned to take low or high-dose lovastatin (Mevacor — the first statin drug). Among the 345 men on high doses, there was no effect of alcohol on the risk of liver inflammation, even in the men who averaged more than two drinks a day.

“Statins are medications. Alcohol is not. Despite this difference, they share an important proviso: each should be used responsibly. And if you do that, you can have your wine and your statin, too,” adds Harvard Health.

What are the side effects of taking statins?

Like all medicines, statins can cause side effects. But most people tolerate them well and do not have any problems.

One of the most common complaints of people taking statins is muscle pain.

“You may feel this pain as a soreness, tiredness or weakness in your muscles,” explains health body the Mayo Clinic.

“The pain can be a mild discomfort, or it can be severe enough to make your daily activities difficult.”

However, it’s worth mentioning that researchers have found a “nocebo” effect when it comes to perceived muscle pain and statins.

A “nocebo” effect means people who have negative expectations about a medication report experiencing the potential side effect at higher rates than the drug should cause.

Other side effects can include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling unusually tired or physically weak
  • Digestive system problems, such as constipation, diarrhoea, Indigestion or farting
  • Muscle pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Low blood platelet count.

The Yellow Card Scheme allows you to report suspected side effects from any type of medicine you’re taking.

It’s run by a medicines safety watchdog called the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

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