Can You Take Supplements to Lower Cholesterol Levels?

Cholesterol and triglyceride levels are closely tied to cardiovascular events and death. Many prescription medications on the market target certain components of the body's cholesterol profile. In addition, many supplements also claim to lower cholesterol levels.

Key takeaways:

This article will discuss what supplements lower cholesterol based on scientific evidence. But remember, before starting any supplement, discuss with your doctor about the effectiveness and whether the supplement is right for you.

Is high cholesterol always bad?

This depends on what component of the cholesterol profile you are discussing. HDL cholesterol is the so-called good cholesterol because high levels of this type of cholesterol can reduce the risk of heart disease. High levels of LDL cholesterol or bad cholesterol can increase the risk of heart attacks and should be kept at low levels.

When measuring cholesterol, there are many different components that are involved in determining total cholesterol levels which for many people should be less than 200 mg/dL.

  • The LDL component should optimally be less than 100 mg/dL,
  • The HDL levels are best when greater than 40 mg/dL.
  • Triglycerides are a different type of fat within the blood that can raise the risk of heart disease and should be kept at a level of less than 150 mg/dL.

Although there are no symptoms associated with high cholesterol, over time, elevated total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides can cause heart attacks and strokes.

Taking supplements to lower cholesterol: do they really work?

Natural supplements to lower cholesterol are often used to help maximize a heart-healthy diet and improve cholesterol levels. It is a popular belief that these natural supplements are safe and effective, but this is not always true. Some supplements can interact with other medications, cause serious side effects, and be dangerous in people with certain health problems.

With the use of supplements for natural cholesterol-lowering effects becoming more popular, it is important to know which supplements are worth trying. The supplements listed below have science-based research to support their ability to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood.

Niacin

Niacin or Vitamin B3 is an essential vitamin that in a recent meta-analysis was shown to reduce total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in patients with Type II diabetes. In addition, niacin helped to raise HDL cholesterol levels in these patients. However, niacin in high doses can produce side effects such as itching, flushing of the skin, and liver damage.

Fish oil

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two of the most common omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils) used in supplements. Supplementing one's diet with these fatty acids either by increasing dietary intake or adding a supplement has shown some evidence they may lower triglyceride levels and raise HDL levels.

Psyllium

Soluble fiber is the non-digestible component of many fruits, vegetables, and beans that forms a gel-like substance in the intestines and binds to dietary cholesterol preventing its absorption. Using psyllium as a supplement may help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Psyllium is generally well-tolerated but can result in constipation if water intake is not increased while taking this supplement.

Berberine

Berberine is a compound found in some plants and is often used as a supplement due to its possible health benefits. In studies involving both humans and animals, berberine has been shown to lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, however, it can cause digestive side effects such as constipation, diarrhea, and flatulence. Caution should be used when taken with blood pressure medications as berberine may cause an unsafe drop in one's blood pressure.

Plant sterols

Plant sterols or phytosterols are natural compounds found in plants that resemble cholesterol and compete for their absorption in the intestine and may increase cholesterol excretion. Found in many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, plant sterols may help reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Additionally, many natural supplements to lower cholesterol contain phytosterols in hopes of producing LDL-lowering effects.

Soy protein

Soybeans are a rich source of isoflavones, phytosterols, soluble fibers, and lecithins, which collectively may help reduce LDL cholesterol levels slightly and this way play a role in a heart-healthy diet. Foods such as tofu, soymilk, and edamame are great sources of soy protein and are considered beneficial for your heart health.

Red yeast rice

Red yeast rice is produced by growing the yeast Monascuspurpureus on rice. This produces a mixture of compounds known as monacolins which can inhibit the enzymes in the cholesterol production pathway in the liver, therefore, lowering cholesterol levels. However, many products on the market contain varying amounts of monacolins which can alter the effectiveness and safety of the product.

Supplements that will probably not lower cholesterol levels

Some supplements are marketed for their ability to lower cholesterol but do not have scientific evidence that supports these claims. Therefore, these are unlikely to provide any cholesterol-lowering benefits but may still interact with other medications and cause unwanted side effects. These supplements include:

  • Garlic. Although small studies have shown a minimal benefit, others have failed to confirm this benefit. In addition, garlic can increase the risk of bleeding requiring caution when taken before surgery or with other blood-thinning drugs like coumadin.
  • Policosanol. Independent studies have failed to show a cholesterol-lowering benefit of this compound found in sugar cane and beeswax.
  • Guggulipid. Well-designed studies have failed to show a benefit of this compound in changing total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, but did show it increased LDL cholesterol levels. Side effects such as allergic reactions and stomach discomfort were seen with this supplement, as well as, its safe use for periods greater than 4 months is unknown.

How to naturally lower cholesterol

Various lifestyle and dietary changes have been shown to provide a natural cholesterol-lowering effect and are important components of a heart-healthy plan.

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol levels which can help to offset the negative effects of elevated LDL cholesterol levels. In addition, exercise can help to reduce blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight.

Trans and saturated fats have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol contributing to a higher risk of atherosclerosis. These fats are often contained in many processed foods such as chips, cookies, donuts, and fried foods. Eliminating these from your diet can help promote a healthier lifestyle.

Smoking can lead to an increase in LDL, a lowering of HDL, and an increase in the build-up of cholesterol in your arteries. Quitting smoking can have significant benefits on your overall health.

Heart-healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet can help improve cholesterol levels. These diets are rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats found in fish and nuts. The incorporation of these dietary changes with exercise can significantly impact cholesterol levels and lead to a healthier heart.

Incorporating these changes can reduce the risks of cardiovascular diseases and lead to a healthy lifestyle.

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