In the wake of the crash and burn of Pfizer's torcetrapib, media attention has turned up the miracles of . . .good old niacin. The NY Times carried a well-written report on niacin in its recent report, An Old Cholesterol Remedy Is New Again.
(Read the entire report at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/23/health/23consume.html?em&ex=1169701200&en=670f
Among their comments: ...torcetrapib worked primarily by increasing HDL, or good cholesterol. Among other functions, HDL carries dangerous forms of cholesterol from artery walls to the liver for excretion. The process, called reverse cholesterol transport, is thought to be crucial to preventing clogged arteries.
Many scientists still believe that a statin combined with a drug that raises HDL would mark a significant advance in the treatment of heart disease. But for patients now at high risk of heart attack or stroke, the news is better than it sounds. An effective HDL booster already exists.
It is niacin, the ordinary B vitamin.
In its therapeutic form, nicotinic acid, niacin can increase HDL as much as 35 percent when taken in high doses, usually about 2,000 milligrams per day. It also lowers LDL, though not as sharply as statins do, and it has been shown to reduce serum levels of artery-clogging triglycerides as much as 50 percent. Its principal side effect is an irritating flush caused by the vitamin’s dilation of blood vessels.
Despite its effectiveness, niacin has been the ugly duckling of heart medications, an old remedy that few scientists cared to examine. But that seems likely to change.
“There’s a great unfilled need for something that raises HDL,” said Dr. Steven E. Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic and president of the American College of Cardiology. “Right now, in the wake of the failure of torcetrapib, niacin is really it. Nothing else available is that effective.”
In 1975, long before statins, a landmark study of 8,341 men who had suffered heart attacks found that niacin was the only treatment among five tested that prevented second heart attacks. Compared with men on placebos, those on niacin had a 26 percent reduction in heart attacks and a 27 percent reduction in strokes. Fifteen years later, the mortality rate among the men on niacin was 11 percent lower than among those who had received placebos.
'Here you have a drug that was about as effective as the early statins, and it just never caught on,' said Dr. B. Greg Brown, professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. 'It’s a mystery to me. But if you’re a drug company, I guess you can’t make money on a vitamin.'
Of course, you and I don't have to wait for the media to endorse something. I'm nonetheless thrilled that this hugely helpful vitamin is gaining greater recognition. My preferred form nowadays is over-the-counter SloNiacin (Upsher Smith). Weve seen no liver side-effects and a minimal quantity of flushing. It's also reasonably priced, $13.99 for 100 tablets of 500 mg at Walgreen's. That's a lot cheaper than prescription Niaspan at $130 for 60 tablets.
Perhaps the notoriety will cut back on the silly responses from some physicians that I still hear about from patients: "My doctor said to stop the niacin because it's going to destroy my liver."