Calling niacin to arms in the battle against cholesterol

The belief that controlling cholesterol is a key to atherosclerosis and heart disease has had its share of supporters and detractors over the years. Researchers have focused on several different approaches–nutrition, drugs that lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels by blocking absorption or by affecting production in the liver, and drugs that raise “good” (HDL) levels. HDL itself is considered a potent weapon for lowering LDL.

Apparently niacin, a standard everyday B vitamin, has long been known to help with cholesterol issues, but it hasn’t been widely recommended because it can be hard for some patients to tolerate. Now a new study finds–not conclusively, but enough to raise a stir–that niacin, when used in combination with statins, is more effective at reversing plaque buildup in the arteries than another drug called Zetia. Heart researchers are encouraged about niacin’s ability to improve artery constriction and plan to do more studies. [The really ugly thing pictured on the right is a seriously diseased artery photographed post-mortem.]

Heart disease has been the target of so many hopeful yet ineffective solutions. Perfectly reasonable doctors standing on opposite ends of the spectrum on various issues. What’s a poor heart patient to do?

How long have we heard about the magic of antioxidants? Well, apparently they’re virtually useless when taken as a pill. Not long ago a bunch of experts weighed in after results of a 9-year study showed no appreciable improvement in those who took those types of supplements. But heart patients who switched to a healthier diet containing those same vitamin and anti-oxidant substances did improve.

No telling what miracles we will continue to discover as we forge ahead using nature’s own bounty to combat our ills.

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