Natural Supplements to Lower Cholesterol
Previously published on Answers.com.
A low fat, high fiber diet and frequent exercise are the first prescription recommended for nearly everyone trying to lower cholesterol. While this works for some, it might not work for all – or it might lower cholesterol, but not to the desired level. In addition to dietary changes, many turn to natural supplements to further lower cholesterol while avoiding prescription medication. There can be risks, however, with some of these supplements: here’s an overview of the pros and cons of the alternative therapies that lower cholesterol ‘naturally.’
Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard-trained medical doctor well known for his natural, holistic health practice, recommends fish oil – in the diet and/or with supplements – to lower cholesterol. “Fish oil contains an abundance of essential omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3s) that have been shown to lower triglyceride (blood fat) levels, minimize inflammation and clotting, and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Research indicates that omega-3s may help reduce the risk and symptoms of a variety of disorders influenced by inflammation, including heart attack and stroke.”
“Dr. Weil recommends taking two grams daily of a fish oil supplement that contains both essential omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)…Choose a supplement brand that has been independently tested and guaranteed to be free of heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and other environmental toxins including polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs.”
Of all the natural supplements, Fish Oil appears to be the only one generally regarded as both safe and effective.
Some believe that eating plenty of garlic and/or taking a garlic supplement will reduce cholesterol. And indeed, the Federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found in 2000 that garlic caused a short-term, small but measurable decrease in both LDL and total cholesterol. However, this was disputed by a study published in the 2007 Archives of Internal Medicine found garlic had no effect on cholesterol and triglycerides. The jury is out on garlic – and as garlic may interfere with blood clotting, WebMd recommends that, “garlic and garlic supplements should not be taken prior to surgery or with blood-thinning drugs such as Coumadin.”
Artichoke Leaf Extract
A reasonable-sized German study in 2000 indicated that artichoke leaf extract lowers cholesterol, but subsequent studies have not proven its efficacy. Artichoke leaf extract can cause gas and/or allergic reactions. More evidence is needed to decide whether this supplement has the potential to lower cholesterol.
Plant sterols are a supplement commonly suggested for lowering cholesterol – available in some foods (Benecol) and multi-vitamins. In their Cholesterol-Lowering Supplements: What works, what doesn’t report, CNN explains, “A tree-resin extract, long used in Ayurvedic medicine, guggul contains plant sterols (guggulsterones) and is available in capsule form.” The article explains that small studies indicated guggul lowered cholesterol, but that was refuted by a 2007 Journal of the American Medical Association study. It is possible guggul is beneficial but it’s important to exercise caution, as “some research has found that 20 percent of Ayurvedic medicines may be contaminated with lead or other toxins.”
As reported by CNN, “Fenugreek is a seed (often ground into a powder) that has been used since the days of ancient Egypt and is available in capsule form.” The article goes on to explain that a few small studies in the 1990s suggested fenugreek lowered total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, but the validity of these studies has been called into question. Interestingly, Fenugreek contains a significant amount of dietary fiber, which is generally acknowledged to lower cholesterol (dietary fiber through the diet and/or with a psyllium supplement like Metamucil). As there is not much evidence that fenugreek works to lower cholesterol and it appears to work due to its high dietary fiber composition, it is likely better to take a fiber supplement than fenugreek.
Niacin, available as a capsule, has been proven in large research studies to lower cholesterol. However, it is only effective at high doses, such as those in the extended-release prescription drug Niaspan. Though niacin is available as an over-the-counter, extended release capsules, side effects are possible and include skin flushing, itching, stomach upset and liver damage. Indeed, the American Heart Association warns, “Dietary supplement niacin must not be used as a substitute for prescription niacin. It should not be used for lowering cholesterol because of potential serious side effects. Dietary supplement niacin is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way that prescription niacin is. It may contain widely variable amounts of niacin — from none to much more than the label states. The amount of niacin may even vary from lot to lot of the same brand. Consult your doctor before starting any niacin therapy.”
Red Yeast Rice
One of the only natural supplements widely acknowledged to effective lower cholesterol is red yeast rice. CNN describes red yeast rice as “a fungus that grows on rice and contains small amounts of a naturally occurring form of lovastatin, a type of statin that is also found in prescription medications.” That it contains a natural form of lovastatin is why the medical community cautions that red yeast rice should not be taken unless under a doctor’s care – it can carry the same risks (muscle pain) as an Rx statin. According to the Mayo Clinic, “There is some evidence that red yeast rice can help lower your LDL cholesterol. However, the Food and Drug Administration has warned that red yeast rice products could contain a naturally occurring form of the prescription medication known as lovastatin. Lovastatin in the red yeast rice products in question is potentially dangerous because there’s no way for you to know what level or quality of lovastatin might be in red yeast rice.
Fish oil is the only natural supplement generally considered to be both safe and effective at lowering cholesterol. Of the many other natural supplements that may reduce cholesterol, most are not proven therapies. The two natural supplements generally accepted to lower cholesterol – niacin and red yeast rice – should be taken under a doctor’s care as they both can result in serious side effects, including liver damage. Before embarking on any natural therapy to reduce cholesterol – even fish oil – you should discuss with your doctor.
Did you know?
Other plant extracts, herbs and spices being investigated for potential cholesterol-lowering properties include yarrow, holy basil, ginger, turmeric, and rosemary.