Updated 01 October 2014

Treating high cholesterol

How do I treat high cholesterol?


Once it has been established that you have high cholesterol, you and your doctor can decide on a treatment plan.

Treatment plans

The aim of treatment is to lower your cholesterol levels and thereby minimise your risk of serious cardiovascular disease (CVD) and organ damage, which could be permanent (think heart attack, stroke or sudden death). Very high-risk patients (those with genetic disorders, manifest vascular disease or diabetes) will need treatment with medication regardless of other considerations. Those who have been identified as high risk by calculating their risk from multiple risk factors also need treatment. In most cases, you will be considered high risk if you have a higher than 20% risk of a heart attack, or a higher than 5% risk of death within 10 years.

Non-medical interventions

These include dealing with known risk factors and can consist of:

·  Smoking cessation. Smoking is an independent major risk factor for CHD,  
   cerebrovascular disease and total atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

·  Exercising more. This normalises the composition of the TC, raising HDL, lowering
   triglycerides and possibly lowering LDL; improves body mass and lessens the risk of 

·  Losing weight. Obesity is associated with a number of risk factors for atherosclerosis,
   cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular mortality. These include hypertension, insulin
   resistance and glucose intolerance, hypertriglyceridaemia and reduced HDL-cholesterol.

·  Eating correctly (quantity and quality). Except for the inherited genetic forms of
   hypercholesterolaemia, cholesterol production is closely linked to fat intake and
   metabolism. Just by controlling food intake, especially of fat, your total cholesterol can be
   lowered by 10-20%. The prudent diet advised here includes:

·   Eating enough kilojoules to reach and maintain your correct body weight, which is a BMI of
    20-25 kg/m2.

·   Eating 55% or more of your total kilojoules (kJ) as complex carbohydrates.

·   Eating 12-15% of your total kilojoules as protein.

·   Eating generous amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, poultry, fish, lean
    meats and low-fat dairy products.

·   Limiting your total daily fat consumption to 30% or less of your total kilojoule intake.

·   Consuming less than 200 mg cholesterol daily.

·   Taking supplements. Omega-3 oils, soy, sterol-enriched margarines, some forms of fibre,
    garlic, nuts, green tea and calcium have individually been shown to have a small
    LDL-lowering effect, especially when combined with diet modification and the use of

Medical interventions 

These include:

·   Identifying and treating known contributory conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension,
    thyroid disorders, kidney disease and several others.

·   Medical treatment to lower your total cholesterol or its components.

As cholesterol is derived from two sources, there are two basic approaches to lowering total cholesterol: limiting the amount the body manufactures, and interrupting the recycling of used cholesterol. The best results are obtained when these two approaches are combined. 

Drugs that limit the production of cholesterol

1. Statins
The statins are a group of drugs which interfere with the production of cholesterol in the liver, in the process lowering the level of cholesterol in your blood. They are the most commonly used and most potent anti-cholesterol drugs, and can reduce your total cholesterol by 20 to 60%. They work by inhibiting one of the enzymes needed to produce cholesterol.

The effects of statins add to those of a controlled diet. Adverse reactions, such as muscle pain, occur in a minority of patients.

For patients with severe hypercholesterolaemia, statins alone may not be enough – even at high doses, which increase the risk of side effects. For every doubling of the dose of a statin, there is only a further 6% reduction in cholesterol. In such cases, the addition of a different type of medication is advised.

Examples of statins include pravastatin, simvastatin, atorvastatin and rosuvastatin. 

2. Fibrates
This group of drugs act mainly to lower triglycerides and may help to raise HDL. They act on several genes to alter the metabolism of lipids in many tissues. This includes lowering the export of triglyceride from the liver and raising the production of HDL.

Examples of fibrates are bezafibrate, gemfibrozil and fenofibrate.

3. Nicotinic acid
This is one of the B group of vitamins. It can help normalise cholesterol levels when given in very large doses. Its use, however, is often limited by its unpleasant side effects, such as severe flushing. Some more recent products claim to be flush-free and although there is anecdotal experience that this is the case, it has not yet been validated in published studies.

Nicotinamide is a different chemical form of nicotinic acid but is ineffective.

Drugs that interrupt the recycling of cholesterol

1. Bile acid sequestrants
The best known of these is cholestyramine. It binds to bile acids in the gut and so prevents reabsorption. As a result, the liver is stimulated into producing new bile. Because cholesterol is used in the production of bile, the total amount in circulation is gradually reduced.

Side effects are common and include abdominal discomfort and possible vitamin deficiencies, as it interferes with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

2. Ezetimibe
This drug prevents the reabsorption of cholesterol by the small intestine and so the cholesterol recycling process. As a result there’s an increased clearance of cholesterol from the blood and a decrease in total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, ApoB (a low-density lipoprotein) and triglycerides.

Side effects are uncommon and most patients tolerate the drug well.

At present, ezetimibe plus a statin is the most effective drug combination to drastically lower LDL cholesterol. 

All of these medications must be used with care and under medical supervision. They can all potentially cause abnormalities in liver function, so liver function should be tested before the drugs are started and should afterwards be regularly monitored if necessary.

There are also known drug interactions which can affect the results and side effects of cholesterol drugs, such as when they’re used with warfarin, certain herbs and other anti-cholesterol medication. Cholesterol drugs should not be used in pregnancy.

Read more
What is cholesterol?
Diagnosing high cholesterol
Saturated vs. unsaturated fats


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.