How can I lower my cholesterol without using medications?
Nicholas Sparacino, DO, is a fellow at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.
Question: My lab report shows my LDL cholesterol at 241. Last year it was 106, I eat lots of veggies and fruit and fiber. I am on a no sugar, no white flour and no preservatives diet. Can that affect the LDL number? I don't want to take Lipitor. Is there anything natural I can take?
Answer: Study after study has shown clearly that elevated cholesterol in general, and elevated LDL cholesterol in particular, are strongly correlated with risk for cardiovascular death. With this in mind, it is clear that lowering LDL levels should be a strong priority for any health-conscious individual, which brings us to your question.
Cholesterol is a fatty molecule that, despite its reputation, is in fact necessary for life. Cholesterol makes up a large part of all of our cell membranes, and is a key component in such hormones as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol. That being said, if there is too much cholesterol present, it can seep into the lining of our blood vessels, eventually blocking them off, and starving the area of oxygen. This can occur in the brain, as a stroke; in the limbs, as peripheral arterial disease; and in the heart, as a heart attack. LDL cholesterol or “bad cholesterol” is a particular form of cholesterol that has been strongly linked to these fatty buildups known as “plaque”.
As for what you can do without resorting to a statin medication like Lipitor, there are many options. The cheapest (although not the easiest), is to increase your exercise level while decreasing your red meat and processed fat intake. There have been several studies that have recently shown the “Mediterranean diet”, consisting of large amounts of fish, olive oil, seeds, and vegetables to be the most effective at both weight loss/maintenance and lowering LDL. High fiber foods such as oatmeal or Cheerios have been shown to decrease cholesterol absorption throughout the day when eaten for breakfast. Niacin is a vitamin that can be obtained at any grocery store or pharmacy, and has been proven to both decrease LDL and raise HDL (the “good” cholesterol). Niacin does cause some unwelcome side effects such as flushing and hot flashes. Omega-3 “fish oils” are another great way to improve your cholesterol profile, although these will have less effect on your LDL than the others mentioned. Red yeast rice is another supplement that also modestly lowers LDL but has not been proven to reduce heart attacks.
It is important to mention that you can expect a moderate decrease in LDL from these interventions. However, if in fact your actual LDL is 241, then realistically you will likely need to take cholesterol-lowering medication to reach what is generally considered to be a “safe” LDL level.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that “natural” does not equate to “healthy”. Cyanide, poison ivy, arsenic, ephedra, and tobacco are just a few “natural” items that are potent and dangerous. Also, items labeled as “herbal” are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and there is no guarantee that they either do what they say, or even contain the chemicals they claim to. There was a recent incident in which “natural” weight control pills that advertised the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee actually contained more than 20 times the advertised amount, and resulted in a serious overdose.
Reviewed November 2010