If you want to lower your cholesterol, changing your diet
and exercise habits is a good place to start. However, a healthy diet and
regular exercise aren’t always enough to reduce your cholesterol to a healthy
Some people choose to treat their high cholesterol with supplements and
herbs instead of more traditional medications. Opinions are mixed on their
effectiveness. While some evidence suggests these treatments are effective,
scientific research is minimal. Here’s what we know about the benefits and risks.
sterols and stanols (phytosterols)
Plant sterols are a group of substances called phytochemicals. These
chemicals occur naturally within plants and some foods. They’re not essential
nutrients but are thought to affect health. Phytochemicals can be found in a
variety of foods, including:
Some processed foods, such as
margarine and orange juice, are fortified with plant sterols.
These substances are believed to reduce cholesterol in your blood by
blocking the absorption of “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. A study
American Journal of Cardiology showed that getting 2 to 2.5 grams of sterols
a day could lower LDL levels by 10 to 14 percent in some people. You can add
this amount of plant sterols to your daily diet by drinking two 8-ounce
servings of plant sterol-fortified orange juice per day.
Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish oil, may slow the buildup of
plaque in the arteries. Plaque is formed in your arteries when cholesterol
combines with fat, calcium, and other substances in your blood. If plaque is
allowed to build up and harden in your arteries, your arteries will become
narrow. This can put you at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
When taken at high doses, fish oil can also lower elevated triglycerides.
While it remains unclear how, high triglyceride levels may cause your artery
walls to thicken or your arteries to harden. This puts you at a higher risk of
having a heart attack or stroke. Pancreatitis can also be caused by high
However, large doses of fish oil can increase the risk of bleeding for some
people. You should not take large doses if you take any blood-thinning
medications. Talk with your doctor before taking fish oil supplements,
especially if you’re taking any other medications. Your doctor can help you determine
the right dosage for you.
Red yeast rice
Red yeast rice is made by fermenting rice with red yeast (Monascus
purpureus). It has been used in China for centuries as both a medicine and
cooking ingredient. It can be bought in drugs stores in capsule form.
In medicine, red yeast rice is primarily used to lower cholesterol. The
beneficial components of red yeast rice are monacolins. These chemicals
interfere with cholesterol formation. One of these monacolins, monacolin K, has
the same structure as the cholesterol medication lovastatin.
Your doctor may prescribe you lovastatin or other statin drugs to lower LDL
Because red yeast rice naturally contains the same components of some
prescription medications, there has been debate about whether it should be
classified as a drug and banned from over-the-counter sales. The Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) now requires that any red yeast rice products containing more than trace
amounts of monacolin K cannot be legally sold as dietary supplements. Despite
this FDA regulation, some red yeast rice products currently on the market in
the United States may contain more than trace amounts of monacolin K. The
labels on red yeast rice products usually do not state the amount of monacolin
K present. Consumers thus have no way of knowing whether a particular product
is safe, effective, or legal.
is a B vitamin that is also known as nicotinic acid. Your body uses niacin to
turn food into energy. Your body also uses niacin to keep your nervous
system, digestive system, skin, hair, and eyes healthy. Most people consume
enough niacin in their daily diets, but it’s also included in many
Niacin has also been found to help raise your levels of
“good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Niacin may increase HDL
by more than 30
percent. HDL is considered good because it helps remove cholesterol from
your arteries. Consistently removing cholesterol from your arteries helps keep
them from becoming blocked. Keeping your arteries clear greatly reduces your
risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Several good natural sources of niacin include tuna, chicken, cereals,
legumes, and seeds. For niacin to benefit your cholesterol levels, you must
take it in higher doses that can be prescribed by your doctor. You can also buy
niacin as an over-the-counter supplement. Because over-the-counter supplements
are not regulated like prescription medications, the ingredients and effects
can vary widely. It is important to consider that taking niacin in high doses
increases your risk for harmful side effects. Possible side effects include:
Because of potential side effects, you should discuss with your doctor
whether niacin supplements are the best treatment for you.
What you can do now
If you’re looking to try alternative treatments to
lower your cholesterol, there are a few steps you can take now:
- Discuss with your doctor which treatments may work
best for you.
- Research how these alternative treatments may
interact with any medications you’re taking.
aware that supplements may have unknown side effects because they’re not
regulated in the same way that drugs are.