February is Heart Health Month so I wanted to share some information about cholesterol and take a look at a natural approach, including diet and supplementation that has proven effective for lowering cholesterol without some of the dangerous side effects associated with some prescription medications.
Firstly, our bodies need cholesterol and it is necessary in order to make vitamin D, hormones (including testosterone and estrogen), and fat-dissolving bile acids needed for the digestion of dietary fats. In fact, cholesterol production is so important that your liver and intestines make about 80% of the cholesterol you need to stay healthy. Only about 20% comes from the foods you eat.
Foods high in saturated fats like full fat dairy products and red meats and foods high in trans fats like processed meats, fried foods, fast foods and baked goods elevate LDL (the "bad" cholesterol). Sugar and alcohol although they don't contain these fats also raise blood levels of LDL and lower the "good" HDL cholesterol. They cause the liver to synthesize more LDL cholesterol as well as raise triglycerides (fats in the blood).
That being said, we do need saturated fats for our brains and our body's cells as they provide the very structure and integrity of our cells. We don't need heat damaged vegetable oils like corn, safflower and sunflower oils. And we don't need sugar, alcohol and refined grains causing blood sugar imbalance. The main problem with LDL cholesterol is when it becomes oxidized by these free radical causing culprits that it becomes a threat.
Medications like Statin drugs work by blocking a substance your liver needs to make cholesterol. This causes your liver to remove cholesterol from your blood. Some of the side effects experienced with Statin drugs include; neurological side effects, increased risk of high blood sugar or type 2 diabetes, liver damage, muscle pain and damage.
Niacin (B3), zinc, fish oil, green tea and apple cider vinegar have all been shown to have a positive affect on cholesterol and/or triglycerides. Supplements such as plant sterols, red yeast rice, and berberine are also effective alternatives. Including foods high in soluble fiber can also help to lower LDL cholesterol. Some studies have shown that ingesting 25g of soluble fibre a day can lower cholesterol up to 18%
There are several different forms of soluble fiber found in foods and supplements including: beta-glucan (from oats), gums (like guar or acacia), pectin (from berries and legumes) and psyllium. When ingested, these fibers turn into a gel-like consistency in the digestive tract. Some foods that are quite high in soluble fibre are: oat bran, barley, black beans, Lima beans, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, black berries, raspberries, avocado, pears, broccoli, turnip and flax seeds.
To promote healthy cholesterol levels; exercise regularly, lose weight, lower cortisol from stress, follow a low carb diet, use olive oil in your cooking rather than other oils, increase soluble fibre and increase your purple foods. Purple foods contain an antioxidant called anthocyanin and studies of these extracts (such as grape seed extract) have shown that they help fight inflammation, protect the cells from damaging free radicals, and potentially raise HDL cholesterol levels.
If you have elevated cholesterol levels and are choosing not to take medication, be sure to incorporate the dietary recommendations along with supplementation and have your doctor check your levels at 3 month intervals.
(Please note that this is for educational purposes only and if you are currently prescribed any medications for heart health please continue to take as directed and discuss any concerns you have with your doctor before making any changes).