What are atorvastatin and simvastatin?

Atorvastatin and simvastatin are both chemicals that interfere with liver cells’ cholesterol production. They are in a family of statins which also includes:

The molecules of the medications target an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase, one step in the chemical process cells use to fabricate cholesterol from simpler types of molecules. Because of this, statins are called “HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors.”

Cholesterol is essential for many body functions, including hormone production, cell structure, lining of nerve cells, digestion, and more. The body can make all the cholesterol it needs, but foods also contain cholesterol the body can use.

A healthy liver can balance cholesterol levels, but too much cholesterol in the bloodstream in LDL form leads to a host of cardiovascular diseases. The excess LDL forms plaques on artery walls, narrowing blood vessels to cause clots and blockages that can lead to coronary heart disease, stroke, heart attack, and other debilitating or fatal problems.

Lipitor and Zocor, as well as other statins, stop the cholesterol-making process in the liver cells by grabbing onto and binding up HMG-CoA reductase before it becomes cholesterol, sabotaging the cell’s cholesterol factory.

When the liver cells can’t make enough of their own cholesterol anymore because of the statin treatment, the body’s cholesterol balancing impulse kicks into action, causing liver cells to suck up more LDL from the bloodstream. The cells break down the LDL into cholesterol to make up for the shortfall in production. As a consequence, less LDL is floating around in the bloodstream to add to arterial plaque deposits, thus substantially reducing cardiovascular disease risk.

Statins like atorvastatin and simvastatin also modestly increase HDL (high-density lipoproteins) in the bloodstream, which is the so-called “good cholesterol.” Good levels of HDL molecules are healthy because they act as scavenger molecules, grabbing LDL from the bloodstream and taking it to the liver for processing and removal.

Researchers don’t yet understand exactly how statins increase HDL.