We have copious information on this website about diet and its relationship to cholesterol, as well as informative articles about herbal and natural remedies; in this piece we’ll focus directly on dietary supplements to improve cholesterol levels. Thus, everything we cover herein would be regarded by your local pharmacist as a supplement, an addition to the diet usually ingested in pill (sometimes liquid) form. To be clear this is not the same as, for example, including garlic in your diet; it is about taking garlic supplements (tablets) with the express intention of lowering cholesterol without the use of prescription drugs.
Before we examine what is touted to reduce cholesterol levels, understand that supplements are made by mostly large manufacturers; these companies have one mandate: to sell products and make a profit. They’re concerned that their products don’t make people sick, but they wont guarantee the effectiveness of their supplements. Make no mistake about it, the older the population gets and the more compromised their health, the bigger the business of vitamins and supplements grows. The makers of vitamins and supplements use marketing and advertising techniques to make claims about their products. It would take decades of intense research to definitively prove or disprove those claims in medically supervised clinical trials.
Some supplements and vitamins are more effective than others. For example, vitamin B3 (also known as niacin) is an ingredient in some types of prescription drugs designed to lower cholesterol levels. Statins, another type of cholesterol medication, are also found in certain supplements to a lesser strength. Therefore, some supplements and vitamins are valid in their claims to at least marginally help in lowering cholesterol levels.
Here are some actual facts that can be stated across the board about dietary supplements in their ability to lower cholesterol levels:
- They are readily available at drug stores and supermarkets.
- No prescription is required, although it’s always smart to check with your general practitioner or pharmacist before taking supplements, especially if you are on prescription drugs.
- They are relatively inexpensive.
- Unless you overdose, they are generally regarded to be harmless. Again, if you are taking other drugs, be sure to speak with your pharmacist to ensure no bad interactions might occur.
- They are in ample supply.
Beyond that, there is a range of supplement options and they work (or not) to varying degrees.
Supplements to Lower Cholesterol Levels
Because most clinical studies tend to focus more on actual medicines (the budgets exist for such trials), the opinions and information expressed here about the worthiness of supplements are based on existing research, if any has been completed. Occasionally a medical study will show promising results and then subsequent trials differ; this is because there are invariably other factors that account for the outcome. Numerous studies performed in very similar controlled circumstances are needed to provide proof positive.
Here, then, are a few supplements touted to improve cholesterol levels:
- Vitamin B3/Niacin. Vitamin B is available in its various individual types (B1, B12, B6, B3, etc.) or as a combination designed to manage illness or stress, for example. It is also the basis for some prescription drugs used to treat high cholesterol and other conditions such as schizophrenia. It sometimes causes side-effects such as skin redness and rash, hot flushes, higher blood pressure (not good if you are already at risk for heart disease), and diarrhea. A normal dose (read the label on the bottle) has proven to reduce LDL cholesterol by as much as 15% and triglycerides by an astonishing 25%; it can also lift HDL cholesterol by 30%. It is important to note that increasing HDL cholesterol is not enough for serious improvement to cholesterol levels; you have to reduce the LDL levels to be truly effective.
- Garlic. Eating garlic regularly is a great method of helping to lower cholesterol levels. Garlic supplements are best for those who either do no like the taste of garlic, or don’t tolerate it well as a foodstuff. The pill form even comes in a type that leaves no aftertaste or scent. Garlic is believed to help lower cholesterol levels a little. It’s not major, but garlic is very good for overall health. If you reply upon garlic supplements to lower cholesterol levels, you must ingest it daily; the effects of its benefits are only temporary.
- Soluble Fiber. You should be getting enough of this directly from your healthy diet, but many people are not eating the right foods. Soluble fiber is plentiful in peas, beans, apples, citrus fruit, prunes, berries, broccoli, carrots, wheat and oats. A medium-sized apple contains 3 grams of soluble fiber, and you need about 10 grams a day to lower LDL cholesterol by 10%. It should be easy to get enough by eating properly. If you aren’t ingesting enough soluble fiber, there are supplements in pill form and we’ve seen it in liquid, or powder that gets mixed with water, at some health food stores.
- Fish Oil. This still sends shivers down the spine of older people who used to have to take this supplement in foul-tasting liquid from every day when they were kids. But now, it seems, our grandmothers were correct; fish oil is one of our healthiest allies. Now available in gel-caps, fish oil contains omega-3 acids, excellent for heart health and reasonably effective in lowering cholesterol. As little as 2 to 4 grams of fish oil is proven to lower triglycerides.
- Ginseng. A popular supplement in Far Eastern culture, this has become a global “cure-all” and there is no proof whatsoever that it works in the reduction of cholesterol levels, although claims to that effect abound.
- Plant Stanols. These occur naturally in hundreds of plants and are a common additive in processed food products such as margarine and salad dressing, plus they exist in certain plant side-products like orange juice. They appear to slightly lower LDL cholesterol levels, but significant controlled testing is needed to prove their worth. If you are already using margarine instead of butter to help lower your cholesterol levels, you’re likely getting sufficient plant sterols and don’t need to take it in supplement form.
- Guggul. A tree that produces sap, this plant has been placed on the endangered species list thanks to overuse, mostly in India, as a medicinal supplement. It has shown to decrease the synthesis of cholesterol in the liver, but a number of studies have demonstrated that is has no effect in reducing total cholesterol in the body. In fact, some study participants discovered their LDL cholesterol levels went up after using this supplement.
- Soy. Soy is readily available in many foods and as a food itself, as well as in supplement form, but its effectiveness in lowering cholesterol is negligible. Additionally, there is insufficient evidence from research to prove any significant benefits, other than it being good for general health.
- Artichoke. This is a healthy vegetable, but the absence of proof behind the leaves being beneficial in reducing cholesterol levels should be a heads-up. Much more research needs to be done in order to ascertain the true effectiveness of artichoke leaves as a dietary supplement to improve cholesterol levels. What is known is that the leaves have the ability to restrict the synthesis of recently consumed and stored cholesterol in the body, and to speed the passage of bile through the system. So far so good, but that doesn’t deliver direct, proven impact on LDL levels. In a German study, subjects ingested 1800mg of artichoke leaves per day for 6 weeks, and the results claim a drop in total cholesterol of as much as 18.5%. But one control group does not a factual conclusion draw. Much more needs to be learned.
Other dietary supplements such as fenugreek and coenzyme Q10 have been examined as possible supplements to lower cholesterol levels, but there is just inadequate factual data on those at this time. Some people think that supplements are the easy way out, quicker than bothering with widespread dietary changes to lower cholesterol levels. But the truth is, you have to eat and so you might as well focus on healthy, whole foods that are known to keep cholesterol levels healthy and low, as they should be for your heart’s sake and health.