What are statins?

Lipitor is the most popular statin on the market. See more heart health pictures.
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It's Sunday morning and your husband has decided to prepare you a lovely breakfast in bed. You smell bacon frying, toast toasting and you hear the clang of the metal whisk as it beats your soon-to-be scrambled eggs with cheese. You wipe the sleep from your eyes as he enters with a tray of hot food, a glass of cold milk and a red rose. What a guy.

While your hubbie gets an 'A' for effort, he's really not doing you any favors in the health department. That breakfast in bed is loaded with cholesterol, so if it becomes a regular ritual you could find yourself developing some health problems down the road -- especially if heart disease runs in your family.

Cholesterol isn't all bad. The waxy substance that's produced in the liver plays a vital role in the functioning of your body's cells by making them waterproof, keeping the biochemistry of the inside of the cell different from the outside. Cholesterol also serves as a guard against cancer and aging and is necessary for proper neurological functioning. In fact, more than half of your brain's cerebral cortex is made up of cholesterol. Low cholesterol levels can:

  • lead to problems with your blood sugar
  • make it more difficult to heal from a wound
  • cause allergies and asthma
  • affect your libido
  • cause problems with reproduction

­So why does cholesterol get a bad rap? Because there's a good kind and a bad kind, and the bad kind gets all the press. The bad stuff is low-density lipoprotein; the good kind is high-density lipoprotein (LDL and HDL). Lipoproteins are the cab service that carries your HDL and LDL around in your bloodstream to do good work or wreak havoc. LDLs circulating through the blood eventually become smaller -- so small that they can enter the walls of your blood vessels and attach themselves. Buildup of LDL on these walls is called plaque, and over time, the plaque can rupture and block the vessels altogether, which is called atherosclerosis and is a precursor to a heart attack. The good stuff, HDL, acts like a security guard and escorts LDL to your liver, where it's processed from the body.

­If you eat foods loaded with cholesterol and your liver is already producing it, you'll end up with high cholesterol. Enter the statins -- a drug that reduces the amount of cholesterol your liver produces. More than 25 million people worldwide take one of six kinds of statins to keep their cholesterol levels in check [source: Wall Street Journal]. Sales of statins are so great that the most popular brand, Lipitor, is the world's best-selling medicine -- topping $12.5 billion in 2007 [source: Wall Street Journal].­