Maybe your doctor has warned you that your cholesterol is too high. Maybe you’re simply concerned about keeping your heart and circulatory system as healthy as possible. In either case, you may have wondered if there are alternatives to cholesterol-lowering prescription drugs. In fact, there are several natural alternatives that have proven effective in some studies.
You’ll find a lot of cholesterol-lowering supplements on sale today, and with these products comes a lot of marketing hype. It’s hard to know what to believe. That’s why we created this guide: to help our readers choose the right cholesterol-lowering supplements.
Read on for more information!
What is cholesterol?
From the bad rap high cholesterol gets, you might assume that all cholesterol is bad – or that cholesterol is foreign to your body. Actually, cholesterol is found in every cell of your body and is critical to your health. This waxy, yellowish fat is a building block of the membrane surrounding each of your cells. It also plays a role in producing vitamin D, hormones, and bile, which helps your body digest fat.
Another common misconception about cholesterol is that it primarily comes from the foods you eat. In truth, your liver and intestines produce the majority of cholesterol in your body – around 80%. Only the remaining 20% comes from your diet. Animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy contain cholesterol.
Good cholesterol vs. bad cholesterol
When your doctor checks your cholesterol with a blood test called a lipid panel, the results aren’t simply one number. A full picture of your cholesterol level – and whether or not it needs lowering – comes from four separate but related values: LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and total blood cholesterol.
LDL, often referred to as bad cholesterol, stands for low-density lipoprotein. LDL transports cholesterol through your bloodstream to your cells. The “bad” part of LDL is that in high levels, it tends to build up fatty plaques inside your arteries – a condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis reduces blood flow through the affected arteries, leading to an increased risk of heart and kidney disease, peripheral artery disease, stroke, heart attack, and blood clots. For adults, a healthy LDL level is less than 100 mg/dl.
HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is often referred to as good cholesterol. It helps remove LDL from your bloodstream by carrying it back to the liver, where it’s broken down for excretion. Thus, HDL helps protect your heart from disease and lowers your risk of stroke. A healthy HDL level for adults is more than 60 mg/dl.
Triglycerides are a type of fat that stores excess energy from the calories you consume. A high level of triglycerides indicates an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. A triglyceride blood test result above 150 mg/dl is considered too high.
Total blood cholesterol
Your total blood cholesterol combines the levels of HDL, LDL, a portion of your triglycerides, and some other fatty proteins into a single number that renders an overall picture of your blood lipid levels. Healthy adults should have a total blood cholesterol level below 200 mg/dl.
Supplements to lower cholesterol
Two of the most effective ways of boosting HDL and lowering LDL are exercising and eating a healthy diet. Consuming too much saturated fat and trans fat – found in red meat, dairy products, and processed foods – can increase your level of unhealthy cholesterol. Consuming too little unsaturated fat – found in nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils – can do the same.
If your LDL levels are very high or you’re at higher risk for heart disease for another reason, your doctor may prescribe a medication to lower your cholesterol. Usually, this medication is a statin drug. If you’d like to try a more natural approach or cannot tolerate statins, however, you may wish to consider the many foods and food-derived substances that have been shown to lower cholesterol.
You’ll find a dizzying array of cholesterol-lowering supplements for sale; some combine several active ingredients and others contain just one. The following are some of the most promising natural supplements that are thought to help lower cholesterol.
Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is so effective at lowering LDL while boosting HDL that it’s often prescribed by doctors in high doses. Over the counter, you’ll find low-dose supplements that may also be effective. Niacin can cause facial flushing, and in high doses, it may harm your liver. Check with your doctor before taking a high-dose niacin supplement.
Omega-3 fish oil
Omega-3 fish oil has proven quite effective at lowering triglyceride levels, raising HDL, and promoting overall heart health. While you can get a hefty dose of omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish – particularly salmon, sardines, and herring – most people prefer taking it in supplement form for convenience.
Psyllium husks and other soluble fibers whisk LDL out of your bloodstream and help regulate your digestive system. You can stir psyllium into a glass of water and drink it or enjoy a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.
Plant sterols are found naturally in many vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains. Something like a plant cholesterol, they block the absorption of dietary cholesterol and lower the amount of LDL in your blood.
Policosanol is a chemical derived from sugarcane, wheat germ, or beeswax. While studies are mixed, it seems to lower LDL and reduce the production of cholesterol in the liver.
Red yeast rice extract
Red yeast rice extract contains a natural, low-dose form of lovastatin, a prescription medication used to lower cholesterol. It can lower LDL very effectively, but take care when choosing a red yeast rice extract; some less-reputable manufacturers claim amounts of the extract that aren’t actually in the product.
Garlic isn’t just delicious in your cooking; it’s also healthy for your heart. Some studies have shown garlic to lower levels of LDL and total cholesterol. It may also reduce the amount of cholesterol produced by your liver.
Guggul extract comes from the resin of the Mukul myrrh tree. It’s been used in India for thousands of years for a variety of desired health benefits, including lowered cholesterol. While results have been mixed, some studies suggest it can reduce total cholesterol.
Soy protein doesn’t have a tremendous effect, but it can lower your total cholesterol and LDL slightly. Replacing one or two meat dishes each week with a soy protein is an easy boost to your health.