High cholesterol hangs like a black cloud over our guiltiest pleasures: buttery desserts, juicy steaks, sizzling bacon, even coffee. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), nearly 37 million Americans battle unhealthy amounts of the yellowish, waxy substance that lives in the lipids, or fats, in the bloodstream. Over time, it can build up in the arteries and restrict blood flow to the heart, increasing the risk of coronary disease, heart attack, and stroke. Yet, cholesterol isn’t all bad, says Trish Rossi, ND, a doctor of naturopathy at the Natural Alternative Center in New York City. “Your body produces it naturally, and it performs some pretty vital jobs. It’s essential in building cell membranes and sex hormones. It’s only when you have too much that you have a problem.”
That threshold, determined by the AHA, is 200 mg/dL, comprised of both HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Prescription statins, such as Lipitor, reduce cholesterol production in the liver. Problem is, statins have been linked to muscle weakening, digestive problems, and liver damage. One recent study analyzed more than 91,000 individuals over 15 years, and found a 9 percent increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes in statin users.
Here are four ways to cut your cholesterol—sans pharmaceuticals.
>> Plant Stanols and Sterols
These plant fibers are found in many fruits, vegetables, legumes, and vegetable oils. “When you eat, cholesterol normally goes right through the liver and into the bloodstream,” says Brian Olshansky, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. “Stanols and sterols bind cholesterol in the gut so it never gets absorbed into your bloodstream.” Research in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases showed that a stanol-rich diet significantly lowered LDL and reduced cardiovascular-disease risk by 26 percent to 30 percent.
TAKE: 1.7 grams daily. Also find sterols and stanols in margarine substitutes like Benecol and Smart Balance.
>> Green Tea
The abundance of polyphenols, an antioxidant, in green tea blocks LDL absorption into the intestines. Some research shows that green tea can lower LDL levels by up to 15 percent, but the data are controversial, Olshansky says.
TAKE: 100 to 750 mg of green tea extract daily, or drink up to five cups a day.
Boosting your HDL levels can be just as important to reach a healthy cholesterol goal as lowering your overall number. Niacin, or vitamin B3, helps the liver manufacture more HDL. According to Judith Stanton, MD, medical director of the California Healing Institute in Albany, New York, niacin also reduces a particularly nasty type of cholesterol called lipoprotein(a) that contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries.
TAKE: 5,500 mg daily at bedtime for two weeks, then increase by 500 mg every two weeks—up to 7,500 mg daily. Note: To avoid heat flush—a harmless but bothersome side effect of niacin—drink a glass of water, take a baby aspirin, or purchase a slow-release niacin.
Found in soybeans and eggs, lecithin is a combination of inositol (a chemical compound that metabolizes fats and cholesterol) and choline (an essential nutrient that helps nerve impulses in the brain and manages fat deposits in the liver). It binds to the bad LDL and moves it out of the body.
TAKE: 2 tablespoons (granule form) three times daily, mixed into salads, cottage cheese, or beverages.
By Julie Dugdale