What are statins, and how do they work?

"Statins" are a class of drugs that lower the level of cholesterol in the blood by reducing the production of cholesterol by the liver. Statins block the enzyme in the liver that is responsible for making cholesterol. This enzyme is called hydroxy-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A reductase (HMG-CoA reductase). Scientifically, statins are referred to as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors.

Cholesterol is critical to the normal function of every cell in the body. However, it also contributes to the development of atherosclerosis, a condition in which cholesterol-containing plaques form within arteries. These plaques block the arteries and reduce the flow of blood to the tissues that arteries supply. When plaques rupture, a blood clot forms on the plaque, thereby further blocking the artery and reducing the flow of blood. When blood flow is reduced sufficiently in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, the result is angina (chest pain) or a heart attack. If the clot occurs on plaques in the brain, the result is a stroke. If the clots occur on plaques in the leg, they cause intermittent claudication (pain in the legs while walking). By reducing the production of cholesterol, statins are able to slow the formation of new plaques and occasionally can reduce the size of plaques that already exist. In addition, through mechanisms that are not well understood, statins may also stabilize plaques and make them less prone to rupturing and promoting the development of clots.

The important role of cholesterol in atherosclerosis is widely accepted by scientists. Research from the last few years shows that aggressive cholesterol reduction is more beneficial than modest reductions.

Atherosclerosis is a complex process that involves more than just cholesterol. For example, scientists have discovered that inflammation in the walls of the arteries may be an important factor in atherosclerosis. In addition to lowering cholesterol levels, statins also reduce inflammation, which could be another mechanism by which statins beneficially affect atherosclerosis. This reduction of inflammation does not depend on statins' ability to reduce cholesterol. Furthermore, these anti-inflammatory effects can be seen as early as two weeks after starting statins.

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