Alternative Treatments for High Cholesterol

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 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.

Dietary fiber, nuts, soybeans, and phytosterols each have different ways of lowering cholesterol levels. Enjoy them with fruits and vegetables, and cut back on saturated fats.

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.

Mind-Body Practices
Along with a healthy diet and aerobic exercise, some things that might help you keep your cholesterol in check are:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Meditation

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.

High Cholesterol Risk Factors
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver and found in certain foods from animals, such as dairy products, eggs, and meat. The body needs some cholesterol in order to work. But too much cholesterol can increase your risk of developing heart disease. Many things contribute to high cholesterol, some of which you can control and others you can’t.

Uncontrollable High Cholesterol Risk Factors
Gender: After menopause, a woman’s LDL cholesterol level (“bad” cholesterol) goes up, as does their risk for heart disease.
Age: Your risk may increase as you get older. Men 45 or older and women 55 or older have a higher risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
Family history: Your risk of high cholesterol may increase if a father or brother had high cholesterol or early heart disease (before age 55) or a mother or sister had early heart disease (before age 65). You can also inherit a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), which causes high LDL levels starting at a young age. It’s rare, but left untreated, it can worsen over time. Talk to your doctor about whether to get a test for FH.

Controllable Risk Factors for High Cholesterol Include:
Diet: The trans fats, saturated fat, sugar, and (to a lesser extent) cholesterol in the food you eat raise total and LDL cholesterol levels.
Weight: Being overweight can make your LDL cholesterol level go up and your HDL level go down. High blood pressure can be a sign that your weight is going up.
Physical activity/exercise: Increased physical activity helps to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) levels. It also helps you lose weight.
Smoking: Smoking damages your blood vessels, which makes them more likely to collect fatty deposits. It also lowers HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels. You can ask your doctor or look online for ways to help you quit. The CDC smoking website is a good place to start.
Type 2 diabetes: Studies show type 2 diabetes can lower “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels and raise triglycerides, another type of cholesterol. Poor diet and lack of physical exercise are two of the prime drivers of the disease.High blood pressure: While high blood pressure does not cause high cholesterol, it often shows up in people who have it. That’s because they can share many of the same risk factors like a lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, aging, and obesity. And both conditions are risk factors for heart disease, which causes the most deaths from high cholesterol.

Diagnosing High Cholesterol
Everyone older than age 20 should get their cholesterol levels measured at least once every five years. High cholesterol does not cause symptoms; so many people are unaware that their cholesterol levels are too high. Lowering cholesterol levels that are too high lessens the risk for developing heart disease and reduces the chance of a heart attack or dying of heart disease, even if you already have it.

To assess your cholesterol level, your doctor will usually ask for a simple blood test called a lipoprotein profile. The lipoprotein profile evaluates the following:

  • LDL (low density lipoprotein cholesterol, also called “bad” cholesterol)
  • HDL (high density lipoprotein cholesterol, also called “good” cholesterol)
  • Triglycerides
  • Total cholesterol level
  • In addition to the blood test, your doctor will perform a full physical exam, discussing your medical history, checking your heart rate, listening to your heartbeat, and taking your blood pressure.

If your cholesterol is found to be high, especially if you have other risk factors for heart disease, your doctor will recommend various treatment options ranging from dietary and lifestyle changes to medication to lower your cholesterol.

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