The Cholesterol Itch

As a 40 something man with some poor genes and a fondness for beer and saturated fats, it comes as no surprise that I have high cholesterol.  I’ve had high cholesterol my whole life.  Even when I was 18, skinny, and manic my total cholesterol was over 200 (the threshold where doctors begin to pay more attention).  While I do find the specifics of my blood lipid profile fascinating, I’ll spare you the details good reader, and move on the story.  Let it suffice to say that over the last few years, my doctor has strongly suggested I take countermeasures against my rising blood cholesterol levels.

I’ve tried the statin drugs, but there are side effects I notice even if I take as few as just one pill per week – mostly an uncomfortable muscle stiffness that results from the main side effect of statins, inhibited muscle growth and regeneration.

So I ditched the drugs despite the certain conspiracy between my doctor and insurance company to provision me with a lifetime supply of them.  That then narrowed my options to regular, rigorous aerobic exercise, dietary controls, and niacin.

Niacin?

Yes, niacin, vitamin B3, aka nicotinic acid.  It turns out that large doses of the vitamin niacin are known to lower blood triglycerides and low density lipoproteins and raise high density lipoproteins (both of those are good things).  In fact, this was the first cholesterol-lowering “drug” ever known.  The most notable thing about niacin however is the flush.

My first experience with niacin flushing came during my raver days in college.  I had a pair of buddies who were into the “smart drinks” thing, which was essentially a juice bar that popped up at a lot of raves with the mission of keeping kids who may or may not have been rolling on ecstasy well hydrated.  Of course, the more enterprising juice baristas would offer formulations that might enhance the whole ecstasy experience, one of which was a big glass of pineapple juice with 1-2 grams of niacin blended according to the customer’s body mass.  My friends called it a “Tahiti Tingle”.

So when my doctor presented niacin as an option, I naturally went for it, seeing it as an excellent excuse to reconnect with my youth.  If you also happen to be on ecstasy while building up to a mild niacin flush, the experience is nearly religious.  If however your aim is to lower your cholesterol, you need to take generally larger doses, which I’ve discovered are unfortunately a little different.

Largish doses of niacin cause a very distinct bodily sensation.  About 30 minutes after taking it, I’ll notice that my arms and thighs feel warm and a little tingly, but pleaseant.  Looking in the mirror, I will notice that my skin has turned lobster-red all over.  A few minutes later though, my skin feels hot, like it should be sweaty but actually stays dry.  A few minutes after that, my skin begins to itch intensely, everywhere.

This flush is actually crucial for the cholesterol lowering properties.  Among other things, niacin causes vasodilation, and this is why my skin feels so funny, but in many ways niacin is doing things to your body that biochemically are similar to what happens when you engage in aerobic exercise.  The intense itchy feeling is unlike exercise of course, but still preferable to it in my mind.  Or at least this is what I tell myself during my new Friday night ritual.  At around 9 or 10 at night, I’ll take a gram of niacin and wait.  If you were to break into my house sometime shortly later, it is very likely you would find me in the spare bedroom, as chubby, naked and red as an upset baby, vigorously rubbing every part of my body with a hairbrush, for my health.

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