Do cholesterol-lowering supplements work?

Nathan Michaels
17 February 2014

Above: Fish oil capsules, a popular cholesterol-lowering supplement (image © istockphoto.com/Joe_Potato)

Most people see high cholesterol as a condition that only affects adults. However, children and teenagers can also be at risk as a result of genetics (passed on from their parents), diet, or obesity. Regardless of age, high levels of cholesterol circulating in the blood lead to the formation of plaques on the walls of blood vessels, increasing the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke.

Fast fact: Some people have a genetic disposition to high cholesterol. They suffer from a disease called hypercholesterolemia that effects that affect about 1 out of every 500 people.Supplements are designed to provide you with nutrients that you may not be getting enough of from your diet. In the case of cholesterol supplements, the active ingredients are supposed to help lower cholesterol levels in your blood, thereby lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke.

There are plenty of nutritional supplements available that claim to lower cholesterol. In Canada, the government has begun examining natural health products for safety and effectiveness. It is also important to use supplements in accordance with the guidelines on the label. As you can imagine, not all of the natural health products on the market have been given the stamp of approval from Health Canada.

Products that are found to be safe, effective, and of high quality are added to the Licensed Natural Health Products Database and given a Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) that will appear on the label. Products that don’t have one of these numbers on their labels aren’t necessarily unsafe, but they either haven’t yet been tested or haven’t met the standards set by Health Canada.

Along with ensuring that the ingredients listed on the bottle actually correspond to what’s in the supplements, the licensing process also involves looking for scientific studies indicating that the ingredients actually do what the label claims they can.

Fast fact: The plaque that builds up on the walls of the arteries of people with high cholesterol looks a lot like butter.Some of the more popular supplements that claim to lower your cholesterol are artichoke leaf extract, fish oil, ginseng, garlic, and soy protein. Here’s a look at some of the scientific evidence on their effectiveness in lowering cholesterol.

Artichoke leaf extract

The dried extract of the leaf of the artichoke plant has shown mixed results. In one study, participants whose cholesterol levels were in the high-risk range showed an average 23% drop in cholesterol levels after taking the extract for 6 weeks. However, a more recent follow-up study found no measurable impact.

Fish oil

Fish oil has been shown to lower triglycerides, which is a type of cholesterol but one that doesn’t cause problems for most people. Furthermore, one clinical study found that relatively high doses of fish oil actually increase cholesterol levels.

Ginseng

This herb has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. And although there have been studies suggesting a positive effect on cholesterol levels, most of these studies were small and seldom randomized. This means that participants in the study were not randomly assigned to either receive the supplement or an alternative treatment. Furthermore, none of the studies were blinded or placebo-controlled, which means that participants knew that they were taking the supplement and the effect of the real supplement was not compared to a “fake” supplement that did not possess the active ingredient. For example, one study that reported a 45% drop in cholesterol levels was funded by a Korean manufacturer of ginseng products and only included 8 participants.

Garlic

Garlic supplements are sold at health food stores in a number of forms, and one study has shown them to cause a small drop in cholesterol levels. However, the effect only lasted for 3 months before cholesterol increased back to pre-treatment levels. More recent research has not been able to repeat any of these results, causing some to question whether the original results were legitimate.

Soy Protein

Soy protein is a popular option since it is available in many foods like tofu, edamame, and soy-milk. The American Heart Association found that consuming 50 grams of soy protein a day resulted in an average reduction of LDL levels of just 4-8%.

Diet appears to be the most effective way to reduce cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Granted, it might seem easier to take a supplement than to change your eating habits. But since they generally don’t do any good, you’re much better off eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. And do something fun with the money you’ll save on supplements!

References

General information

High Cholesterol in Children (WebMD.com) Questions from Consumers – Regulation of Natural Health Products (Health Canada) Supplements for Cholesterol: What Works? (Health.com) 10 surprising facts about cholesterol (Sarah Klein, CNN)

Scholarly publications

Ogier N, et al. 2012. LDL-cholesterol-lowering effect of a dietary supplement with plant extracts in subjects with moderate hypercholesterolemia. European Journal of Nutrition. 52(2):547–557. Thompson J, Sheeshka, JD, Manore, M. 2010. Nutrition: a functional approach. Pearson Canada, Toronto, ON.

Nathan Michaels

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