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Statins: Weight gain, side effects, and uses

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Statins and weightOther side effectsHow statins workSummary
Statins are prescription medications that lower total cholesterol. The drugs aim to reduce your risk of stroke or heart attack if your cholesterol is high, but there are reports of associated weight gain.
Medically reviewed by Alexandra Perez, PharmD, MBA, BCGP
Written by Faye Stewart
Updated on September 29, 2023

As with many medications, statins may cause side effects, including:

  • digestive discomfort
  • muscle pain and weakness
  • cognitive dysfunction, like difficulty paying attention and changes to your memory and problem-solving skills

Another side effect is the potential for weight gain.

Do statins cause weight gain?

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Photography by Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images

There is a link between weight changes — including weight gain — and using statins.

A 2018 study looked at the effects statins have on leptin. Leptin is a protein found in specific cells within white fat tissue. It helps us know when we are hungry and when we are full.

The study shows that two statin drugs — atorvastatin and simvastatin — decreased leptin secretion, which may account for increased feelings of hunger. In turn, this could lead to weight gain when using statins long term.

Another factor that could contribute to weight gain is behavioral. As you take statins, you may place less emphasis on a balanced diet since the medication will lower cholesterol levels.

Statins can also cause muscle pain and weakness. If you experience this side effect, you may be less likely to exercise, which may also result in weight gain.

Other statin side effects

Below are some of the other side effects that statins may cause.

Increased blood sugar

When you take statins, it is possible for your blood sugar levels to increase. In the long term, this could lead to type 2 diabetes.

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicates that the risks are small and outweighed by the statin’s benefits of reducing heart attacks and stroke.

Liver damage

A medical professional may recommend a liver enzyme test before or soon after you start taking statins. This is because statins can sometimes cause an increase in enzyme levels, signaling liver inflammation.

It is rare, and a 2020 study advises that, although the effects on liver enzymes may vary per dose, it is not significant and should be safe, even for people with heart conditions.

However, if you notice symptoms of liver damage, such as yellowing of the eyes and skin, dark-colored urine, or pain in your upper abdomen, consider contacting a doctor or healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Cognitive and neurological side effects

According to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, there should be no effects on cognition regardless of dose or cholesterol level. However, the paper does advise that further research is necessary to confirm the effects on statins and those who already have cognition-affecting conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2019 study of 100 people found an increase in peripheral neuropathy symptoms when taking statins for longer than 1 year. Peripheral neuropathy is any feeling of tingling or pins and needles, tremors, pain, or numbness, usually occurring in the hands and feet.

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Muscle pain and damage

Muscle fatigue, soreness, or weakness can range from mild to interfering with daily activities, but experts do not yet understand why this happens in relation to statin use.

A 2019 study suggests that statins may cause your muscles to release calcium, which could cause several symptoms, including muscle pain and weakness.

How do statins work?

Having too much cholesterol in your blood increases your risk of heart attack or stroke.

Statins block hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA (HMG-CoA) reductase, an enzyme in your liver that makes cholesterol. Blocking this enzyme reduces the amount of cholesterol your liver makes. Statins also help the liver remove cholesterol that’s already in your bloodstream.

Statins include:

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Summary

There may be a connection between statins and weight gain, but there’s no clinical evidence as to why this weight gain occurs. The connection may be behavioral (people thinking that taking a statin balances overeating) or physical (if statins cause muscle pain and weakness, then people taking a statin may not get enough exercise).

Talk with your doctor if you think you are experiencing side effects from statins. They may be able to recommend a change, like adjusting your dosage or trying a different type of medication.

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