When you think of conditions where an over-the-counter medication will help, lowering your cholesterol may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Most people think of OTC medications for minor problems like cough and cold, allergies, upset stomach, and mild aches and pains.
It may seem strange that there are medications available over the counter for high cholesterol—a problem that you may not even know you have. Unlike a cough or cold, high cholesterol is not a condition that you can physically feel, and your doctor must perform blood work to determine if you have it.
So how and why would you take a non-prescription med for high cholesterol?
First, it’s important to know what causes high cholesterol and what you can and cannot change if you’re diagnosed. High cholesterol can be a result of several factors, including poor lifestyle choices and genetics. Family history or genetics cannot be changed, but poor lifestyle choices can be!
If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, depending on how severe it is, your doctor may start you out with lifestyle changes and OTC treatments.
Some lifestyle changes that can be helpful include:
- Quitting smoking
- Better diet
- Weight loss
- Stricter blood sugar control
And some of the OTC medications that may help:
- Red rice yeast. A traditional Chinese medication, red rice yeast is available over-the-counter and has been suggested to help lower cholesterol. However, there are various types available, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. For example, one of the main issues with red rice yeast: small amounts of the prescription medication lovastatin (used to lower cholesterol) have been found in some formulations. Lovastatin and red rice yeast have a very similar chemical make-up, which may explain why several brands of red rice yeast were taken off of the market by the FDA in 2007 after they were found to contain lovastatin.
- Niacin. A form of vitamin B, niacin is available over-the-counter and has been suggested to improve a component of cholesterol known as HDL (“good” cholesterol). Niacin may work to increase HDL levels—it is also available in higher strengths by prescription as Niaspan ER.
- Garlic. Not only for adding to food to enhance flavor, garlic has also been suggested to help lower cholesterol. Garlic supplements are available over-the-counter, but you still need to check with your doctor or pharmacist before using because garlic can negatively interact with A LOT of prescription medications.
- Fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids). Whether you get this from eating fish or taking the over-the-counter supplement, omega-3 fatty acids have been suggested to help lower a component of cholesterol known as triglycerides. Fish oil is more likely to work in those who have very high triglyceride levels compared to those with moderate levels. Like niacin, higher doses of omega-3 are available by prescription as Lovaza and Vascepa.