There are many alternative treatments that claim to lower cholesterol. Before you try any, talk to your doctor. Few natural products have been proven in scientific studies to lower cholesterol, but some might be helpful. Either way, it’s important to ask your doctor if a supplement or alternative remedy could affect other medications you're taking or cause side effects.
Supplements for Lowering Cholesterol
Some of the herbal and nutritional supplements that may help lower cholesterol include:
- Garlic: Some studies show that garlic may lower blood levels of total cholesterol by a few percentage points, but only in the short term. Other studies suggest it may not be as helpful as once thought. Garlic may prolong bleeding and blood clotting time, so you shouldn’t take garlic or garlic supplements before surgery or with blood-thinning drugs such as Coumadin.
- Fiber: Taking a supplement to help you get enough daily fiber can help lower your overall cholesterol level and your LDL (bad) cholesterol. Some examples of fiber supplements are psyllium, methylcellulose, wheat dextrin, and calcium polycarbophil. If you take a fiber supplement, increase the amount you take slowly. This can help prevent gas and cramping. It’s also important to drink enough liquids.
- Whey protein: You can get this milk-based protein from dairy products. You can take it as a supplement, too, typically in a powder form that you can add to drinks or soft foods. Studies suggest that whey protein supplements can lower LDL and total cholesterol. If your doctor gives you the go-ahead to try one, choose a supplement that lists whey protein as its only ingredient, so you avoid things like added sugar. Also look for a label on the packaging that says NSF Certified for Sport or certified by Informed Choice, which means the product has been tested for purity.
- Guggulipid: This is the gum resin of the mukul myrrh tree. It has been used in traditional ayurvedic medicine, which originated in India more than 2,000 years ago. In clinical studies done in India, guggulipid lowered blood levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. But most of these studies don’t meet the criteria for scientific validity. Also, enthusiasm for using guggulipid as a cholesterol-lowering herbal agent went down after the publication of negative results from a clinical trial in the U.S. More research is needed to find out how safe and effective this herb is.
- Red yeast rice:Studies show it may help lower cholesterol. At one time, it was an ingredient in the over-the-counter supplement Cholestin. But in 2001, the FDA took Cholestin off the shelf because it contained lovastatin, a compound found in the cholesterol prescription medication Mevacor. Reformulated "Cholestin" no longer has red yeast rice in it. Other supplements in the U.S. that have red yeast rice can contain only very small levels of lovastatin. The FDA does not allow the promotion of red yeast rice for lowering cholesterol.
- Policosanol: Produced from sugar cane, policosanol was found to be effective in lowering LDL cholesterol in several studies. Most policosanol supplements found in the U.S., including the reformulated Cholestin, contain policosanol extracted from beeswax and not the sugar cane policosanol. There is no evidence that policosanol extracted from beeswax can lower cholesterol. More studies on sugar cane policosanol are needed to find out how effective and safe it is for lowering cholesterol.
- Other herbal products: The results of several studies suggest fenugreek seeds and leaves, artichoke leaf extract, yarrow, and holy basil all may help lower cholesterol. These and other commonly used herbs and spices -- including ginger, turmeric, and rosemary -- are being investigated for their potential beneficial effects relating to coronary disease prevention.
Dietary Approaches to Lowering Cholesterol
Eating more foods with fiber, soy, omega-3 fatty acids, and plant compounds similar to cholesterol (plant stanols and sterols) can lower LDL cholesterol, or bad cholesterol.
- Fiber: Only plant foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, unrefined grains) have dietary fiber. The soluble fiber in foods like oat bran, barley, psyllium seeds, flaxseed meal, apples, citrus fruits, lentils, and beans are particularly effective at lowering total and LDL cholesterol.
- Nuts: Ones like almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios can reduce cholesterol. According to the FDA, eating a handful (1.5 ounces) of walnuts every day can lower your chances of getting heart disease. You can replace foods high in saturated fats with nuts, and they are a good source of fiber.
- Soybeans: Substituting soybeans or soy protein for other proteins has been shown to prevent coronary heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Soy protein is in tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yogurt, edamame, soy nuts, and many other food products made from soybeans.
- Phytosterols: Phytosterols (plant sterol and stanol esters) are compounds found in small amounts in foods such as whole grains, as well as in many vegetables, fruits, and vegetable oils. They lower LDL cholesterol, mostly by interfering with the amount of cholesterol your intestine absorbs. Phytosterols can be found in some margarine spreads, dressings for salads, and dietary supplements. Check labels.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may also help reduce heart disease and lower triglycerides. Omega-3 fatty acids slow the rate at which the liver makes triglycerides. Omega-3 fatty acids also have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, decrease the growth of plaque in the arteries, and aid in thinning blood. Aim for at least two servings of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, and sardines per week. A couple of other foods with omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed and walnuts. Supplement sources include fish oil capsules, flaxseed, and flaxseed oil. If you’re considering taking omega-3 fatty acids, first ask your doctor if these supplements are right for you, especially if you’re taking blood-thinning medication.
Avoid Trans Fats
Stay away from foods that have partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated vegetable oils. These man-made oils are sources of trans fatty acids known to raise LDL cholesterol. They lower heart-protecting HDL (good) cholesterol and increase the inflammatory response in the body. You can find trans fats listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of packaged foods. Minimize how much food with trans fatty acids you eat.
Along with a healthy diet and aerobic exercise, some things that might help you keep your cholesterol in check are:
- Tai chi
If you have a health condition, ask your doctor if yoga is right for you. It’s also important to work with an experienced yoga instructor to lower your chances of doing a pose wrong and getting injured.
If diet and regular exercise don’t help you cut your cholesterol enough, talk to your doctor about taking cholesterol-lowering medications.