Lowering your cholesterol naturally – Do supplements work?

Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is key to reducing heart disease risks. Exercise and eating healthy are the first lines of defense, but dietary supplements can also help lowering cholesterol.

Cholesterol comes from foods that naturally contain it and from cholesterol made by the liver. The production of hormones and vitamin D relies on cholesterol. The two main types of cholesterol are:

  • LDL Cholesterol – “Bad” cholesterol that builds up on artery walls. High levels raise the risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • HDL Cholesterol – “Good” cholesterol that removes LDL cholesterol from arteries. Higher levels protect heart health.

Having too much LDL cholesterol circulating in your blood, it slowly builds up your arteries in the form of fatty deposits called plaque. This hardening and narrowing process is known as atherosclerosis. If the arteries supplying blood to our heart become clogged enough, it triggers events like heart attack or chest pain. For these reasons, keeping total and LDL cholesterol levels within a healthy range is important. Lifestyle and in some cases medication help lower high cholesterol, but research also suggests certain supplements offer additional support.

Do supplements help lower high cholesterol?

Many natural supplements are advertised to help lower cholesterol levels, but not all mainstream organizations recognize these supplements as proven to be effective. Still, some supplements like psyllium husk fiber or plant stanols show promising evidence from multiple studies. It’s important to realize that while supplements help move the needle, lifestyle factors almost always have a far greater impact. Supplements work best paired with healthy diet changes, exercise, smoking cessation, and managing health conditions that influence cholesterol levels.

Psyllium husk fiber

Psyllium is solid fibrous derived from the Plantago ovata plant that helps lower LDL cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol particles and removes them from the body before absorption. Multiple studies show daily psyllium supplements lower LDL cholesterol levels anywhere from 5% to 10%. Effects seem greatest in those already diagnosed with high cholesterol. Side effects are generally mild but include gas, bloating, or feeling full.

Stanol esters/sterols

Stanols and sterols are substances found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains that block the intestine from absorbing cholesterol. Specific plant forms called stanol esters and sterol esters approved as food additives lower LDL levels by up to 10-15%. These are often added to products like margarine spreads and yogurt drinks. Plant stanols/sterols, like psyllium husk fiber, must be taken daily to remain cholesterol-lowering.

Red yeast rice extract

Extracts of red yeast rice are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. Red yeast rice contains monacolins, substances that block cholesterol production. One specific monacolin called monacolin K is chemically identical to the prescription drug lovastatin. In studies, red yeast rice extract lowered LDL levels significantly more than placebo over the short term. However, evidence for long-term benefits is lacking. Side effects mimic prescription statin drugs. Red yeast rice risks interfering with prescription drugs because it is a natural statin.

Lifestyle still comes first

Dietary supplements should never replace heart-healthy lifestyle improvements as the foundation of cholesterol-lowering regimens. Small reductions in cholesterol from supplements likely won’t outweigh the improvements gained from:

  • Following a heart-healthy diet high in soluble fiber foods
  • Exercising 30+ minutes most days of the week
  • Managing related health issues like diabetes, blood pressure, and thyroid disorders

Talk to your doctor before beginning best supplements to lower cholesterol. They help determine achievable cholesterol goals through proven lifestyle changes, and which supplements will provide added support.