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Your Guide to Statins and Diabetes

Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
26th May 2021

In 30 Seconds… 

Statins are among the most commonly prescribed and highly researched groups of drugs on the planet.

They’re used to lower so-called “bad” cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart attack, heart disease, angina, and stroke. They are also frequently used for diabetes care, as people with diabetes are firmly in the cardiovascular risk categories.

However, for people with prediabetes, the benefits of statins must be weighed against their risks, which can include developing type 2 diabetes.

Statins are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the UK. Between 7 and 8 million adults in Britain take them in a bid to lower the risk of heart attack, heart disease, angina, and stroke.

They’re also used for diabetes care, as people with diabetes are at a high risk of adverse cardiovascular events. 

However, for people with prediabetes (where blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes), statins can be a double-edged sword. 

On one hand, they offer heart-related benefits, as many people with prediabetes are also at higher risk of developing heart disease. On the other hand, research has shown that statins may lower insulin resistance, increase blood sugar and ultimately result in a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. 

In this article, we’re talking about statins and diabetes. We’ll explore the benefits, side effects, and risks of statins for people with prediabetes and diabetes. But, first thing’s first… 

What Are Statins?

Statins are a group of prescription drugs designed to lower the level of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. 

We dig into the types of cholesterol, normal cholesterol levels, and triglycerides (another kind of blood fat) in more detail in this article, but in short:

  • LDL cholesterol (otherwise known as “bad” cholesterol) can cause fat to build up in your arteries. This condition is called “atherosclerosis”. It can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) because it causes your arteries to narrow and harden, impairing healthy blood flow.
  • HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins or “good” cholesterol), meanwhile, is tasked with collecting LDL cholesterol, taking it away from your arteries and to your liver, where it’s broken down and flushed out of your body. 

Your body needs both types of cholesterol. But if you have too much LDL and too little HDL, this can be dangerous to your heart health. To redress the balance, statins block the enzyme that your body uses to produce cholesterol in your liver, lowering LDL levels in the process.

Are There Different Types of Statins? 

Yes, there are various types of statins available. They all act in similar ways, but it can be a case of trial-and-error until you find the statin therapy that works best for you. 

Common types of statins currently prescribed in the UK include:

  • Atorvastatin
  • Fluvastatin
  • Pravastatin
  • Rosuvastatin
  • Simvastatin

What Else Do Statins Do?

The benefits of statins aren’t limited to lowering your LDL cholesterol levels. 

Statin treatment can also reduce the risk of fatty plaques breaking off from the walls of your arteries; improve the function of your blood vessels; lower the risk of blood clots; reduce blood pressure; reduce inflammation, and repair cell damage.

What Are the Side Effects of Statins?

Common side effects of statins include headaches, constipation, nausea, fatigue, indigestion, muscle and joint pain, flatulence, and diarrhoea. 

As your body gets used to the medication, these side effects may reduce or disappear altogether.

However, there are some serious side effects to be aware of. These include:

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Muscle damage
  • Memory loss
  • Prediabetes developing into type 2 diabetes

Statins and Diabetes: What to Know

As a lifelong condition in need of careful management, diabetes mellitus (to give diabetes its full name) poses several health concerns. Chief among them is the risk to your cardiovascular health because, over time, the additional sugar building up in your blood can damage your blood vessels.

This can disrupt the blood flow to your heart and brain, increasing the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) or stroke.

But that’s not the only reason statins are prescribed to diabetic patients. Diabetes can also lower your “good” cholesterol and raise your “bad” cholesterol. This is called diabetic dyslipidemia and it can happen even if you’re closely monitoring your diabetes.

Diabetes + Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) Risk Factors

If you have diabetes, you may be recommended statins if you fall under one or more of the following high-risk categories:

  • You have high blood pressure
  • You’ve got high cholesterol
  • You’re overweight or obese
  • You’re a smoker
  • You drink a lot of alcohol
  • You eat a lot of sodium, saturated fat, or trans fat
  • You work in a sedentary job or you don’t do a lot of exercise

In addition to this, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) suggests that all adults over the age of 40 with diabetes take statins alongside serious lifestyle and dietary changes.

According to the ADA, if you’re able to control these risk factors, you’ll lower your chances of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). 

Can Statins Raise Blood Sugar?

There have been several studies and developments over the years that indicate that statins can increase blood glucose levels and, therefore, the risk of diabetes. 

  • A 2016 review found that statins increased glucose levels in people with diabetes.
  • This followed a decision in 2012 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to add warnings that “increases in blood sugar levels have been reported with statin use.”
  • A 2017 study highlighted the increased risk of diabetes.
  • A 2020 study also found that high-dose, long-term statin use may be linked to an increased risk of developing diabetes. 

For people with prediabetes, this can be concerning to hear. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has stated that the heart health benefits of statins outweigh the risk of diabetes. They also recommend the wider use of statins to prevent CVD.

Alternatives to Statins

Whether you’ve been prescribed statins or not, if you have prediabetes or diabetes, primary prevention of cardiovascular disease is key. Tackling the root causes of obesity and lowering your body mass index (BMI) are important first steps. You’ll also want to focus on increasing your HDL cholesterol and improving your blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity.

To do this, consider the following: 

  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce or stop alcohol consumption
  • Follow a Mediterranean diet
  • Avoid trans and hydrogenated fats
  • Cut down on processed foods
  • Eat more whole foods and veggies
  • Get omega-3 fatty acids from seafood
  • Try vitamins to lower cholesterol

Read More: How to Reduce Cholesterol: 9 Smart Ways

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Key Takeaways… 

What’s the key thing to know about statins and diabetes? Whether you have diabetes or you’re prediabetic, statins remain only part of diabetes and cardiovascular care. They’re not a cure-all and they shouldn’t be taken in place of a nutrient-rich and healthy diet, regular exercise, quitting smoking, and cutting down on alcohol. 

And remember, if you’re concerned about your situation or you have questions about medication or treatment, follow up with your healthcare provider.

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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