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Treating High Cholesterol with Niacin and Fish Oil

written by: Diana Cooper • edited by: BStone • updated: 7/5/2011

Eating well, exercising regularly and living a healthy lifestyle are best, but when this is not enough, can using fish oil and niacin to lower cholesterol help? Learn about each and see if these natural remedies may be right for you.

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    Niacin

    Niacin (a B vitamin) is not often thought of as a medication, especially by pharmaceutical companies that can't profit from its use. However, this reasonably priced vitamin has demonstrated better overall results than cholesterol-lowering drugs in decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

    In the 1950s, niacin was first described as having cholesterol-lowering activity. Today, it is known to do much more than just lower total cholesterol levels. It has been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower triglyceride levels, as well as lower Lp(a) and fibrinogen levels. Lp(a) - lipoprotein a - is a type of cholesterol ("apolipoprotein a" attached to LDL cholesterol) that is usually inherited, and fibrinogen is a blood protein that causes clot formation.

    In a 26 week study, niacin was compared to the drug lovastatin. The study involved 136 participants who had CHD and LDL levels greater than 160 mg/dl, and/or more than two CHD risk factors, or LDL levels greater than 190 mg/dl without CHD or with few CHD risk factors. A higher percentage of those who took lovastatin had a greater reduction in LDL levels, but a higher percentage of those who took niacin had better results with HDL and Lp(a) levels (a low HDL level is actually a more significant indicator for CHD). The following are the results between the two groups:

    LDL cholesterol reduction

    • lovastatin - 26 percent at 10 weeks, 28 percent at 18 weeks, 32 percent at 26 weeks

    • niacin - 5 percent at 10 weeks, 16 percent at 18 weeks, 23 percent at 26 weeks

    HDL cholesterol increase

    • lovastatin - 6 percent at 10 weeks, 8 percent at 18 weeks, 7 percent at 26 weeks

    • niacin - 20 percent at 10 weeks, 29 percent at 18 weeks, 33 percent at 26 weeks

    Lp(a) lipoprotein reduction

    • lovastatin - zero percent at 10 weeks, zero percent at 18 weeks, zero percent at 26 weeks

    • niacin - 14 percent at 10 weeks, 30 percent at 18 weeks, 35 percent at 26 weeks

    High doses are needed for treatment, which can cause a harmless but uncomfortable flushing of the skin. The flushing is temporary and typically occurs 20 to 30 minutes after taking niacin. Other occasional side effects include nausea, gastric irritation, headache, dizziness, increased blood sugar and liver damage. Diabetics should be closely monitored, and people with elevated liver enzyme levels or a preexisting liver disease should avoid use.

    To help prevent flushing, some manufacturers began marketing "slow-release", "timed-release" or "sustained-release" products. These absorb gradually, reducing the flushing reaction. However, according to a study published in JAMA, 52 percent of those who took these products developed liver toxicity, and none of those who took regular niacin developed liver toxicity.

    If you are considering taking niacin as a treatment, consult your doctor first. Cholesterol and liver enzyme levels should be monitored.

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    Fish Oil

    Fish oil can be obtained from eating cold water fish or taking supplements. It is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fish oil has many health benefits, including reducing one's risk of heart disease. Fish oil may possibly be effective in lowering cholesterol, but more research is needed. Scientists think it may lower levels by preventing it from being absorbed in the intestine. There is also some evidence that taking vitamin B12 with fish oil might enhance its ability to lower cholesterol.

    Multiple studies have shown that EPA and DHA lower triglycerides (fats related to cholesterol), as well as raise HDL levels. According to one study involving 84 patients with an increased mortality from coronary artery disease, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, those who took 4 grams of fish oil had a significant decrease in triglyceride levels and a significant increase in HDL levels compared to those who took 4 grams of olive oil.

    If taken in low doses (3 grams or less per day), fish oil is likely safe for most people. Possible side effects include belching, nausea, heartburn, loose stools and nosebleeds. However, high doses can possibly have harmful effects, such as increasing the chance of bleeding and reducing the immune system's activity. Also, large amounts can actually increase LDL levels in some people.

    Using fish oil and niacin to lower cholesterol may be an effective treatment, but it is important to consult with your health care provider when deciding on an appropriate treatment that best fits your needs.

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    References

    Michael Murray, N.D. and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D. "Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine" Prima Publishing 1998

    Mayo Clinic: Niacin to boost your HDL, 'good,' cholesterol - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/niacin/CL00036

    Medline Plus: Fish oil - http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/993.html

    Mayo Clinic: Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fish-oil/NS_patient-fishoil

    University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-3 fatty acids - http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm

    Tsang Nutrition: Boost your HDL-Cholesterol naturally - http://tsangenterprise.com/news110.htm

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    Disclaimer

    Please read this disclaimer regarding the information contained within this article.