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Lowering cholesterol naturally

As many as one in two Australians have high cholesterol levels. In a recent media storm, questions were raised over the dangerous side effects of the popular cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, which are among the most prescribed pharmaceuticals in the country.  Cathyrn Rich investigates how most people can lower their cholesterol without the ‘miracle’ statins.

Cholesterol, a type of fatty substance, is vital for your health. It has an important role in cell membrane structure, hormone production and the absorption and synthesis of vital nutrients. However, if cholesterol levels become too high, it can be detrimental; they are a major risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death in Australia.

Most of the cholesterol that your body needs is manufactured by the liver but you also obtain some cholesterol from your diet from meat, poultry, eggs, fish and dairy products.

 

The dangers of too much cholesterol

There are two main types of cholesterol in the bloodstream:

  • LDL (low density lipoprotein) or ‘bad’ cholesterol
  • HDL (high density lipoprotein) or ‘good’ cholesterol

When you eat too many foods that contain high levels of saturated or trans fats, the level of LDL or bad cholesterol rises in your bloodstream. This leads to cholesterol and fatty particles building up on the inside of your arteries and forming plaques. These plaques grow bigger, a process called atherosclerosis, and the arteries become narrower and less pliable. Blood flow to organs becomes less efficient and can cause many problems including angina. Plaques can also rupture and cause complete blockage of an artery, which is the cause of heart attacks and strokes.

Lack of exercise, smoking and being overweight can also contribute to high levels of LDL as well as lower HDL cholesterol levels...

When you include foods containing polyunsaturated fats in your diet, you can increase levels of HDL or good cholesterol in your bloodstream. High HDL levels offer protection against the development of atherosclerosis or slow down the process by helping to remove cholesterol from the artery walls and return it to the liver.

Treatment

The most important step to take if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels is to talk to your doctor. The aim of any cholesterol-lowering treatment should you need it, is to lower your LDL cholesterol levels enough to reduce the risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack. Here are your options:

a. Statins

For individuals with very high cholesterol levels who may be at a greater risk of heart disease due to other factors, your doctor may prescribe a statin drug and while these are effective at lowering LDL cholesterol levels, they are not well tolerated by some individuals. Side effects can be common and include mild symptoms of muscle pain and tenderness, headaches, and skin rash. More serious adverse effects can occur, in particular a serious muscular condition called rhabdomyolysis in which muscle tissue breaks down and can result in kidney failure. Recent reports also include impaired brain function among the list of side effects.

 

Statins also lower levels of the antioxidant, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) in the body. Some researchers suggest these reduced CoQ10 levels may be responsible for some of the side effects of statins. With this knowledge, supplementing statin users with CoQ10 is recommended by a number of healthcare professionals.

b. Diet and lifestyle changes

Improving your diet can be all that is needed to reduce LDL and increase HDL cholesterol levels as well as to prevent it in the first place! You can expect to achieve up to a 30 per cent reduction in LDL cholesterol levels within the first four to six weeks of following a cholesterol-lowering diet.

Cholesterol-lowering dietary guidelines

Omit/reduce saturated and trans fats

  • Avoid fried, fast and processed foods, these raise LDL cholesterol
  • Choose low fat dairy products, lean meat and poultry
  • Grill or bake instead of frying
  • Use vegetable oils, avocado or healthy spreads instead of butter

Increase your intake of foods mono- and polyunsaturated fats

  • Include oily fish, eg salmon and mackerel. The Heart Foundation recommends 2-3 serves per week
  • Include moderate amounts of raw (unroasted and unsalted) nuts. Studies show 25-40g of walnuts or almonds can reduce LDL cholesterol
  • Include avocadoes, seeds and olive oil

Increase fibre intake

  • Eat oat and barley-containing foods, high in soluble fibre (beta-glucan), which can reduce LDL cholesterol
  • Eat plenty of wholegrains, cereals, fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Use legumes like kidney beans or lentils in place of meat

Use plant sterol enriched foods

  • Shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels
  • Use margarines, breakfast cereals, low fat milk and yoghurt enriched with plant sterols or take a supplement
  • The Heart Foundation recommends 2-3g plant sterols per day

 

Research shows that incorporating regular exercise into your daily routine can help improve your cholesterol levels. Regular moderate exercise of about 30 minutes carried out three to four times per week can lead to a 10 per cent reduction in LDL levels and a 5 per cent increase in HDL levels.

If you are overweight, aiming to lose 5-10kg can help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and improve your cholesterol levels.

Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one standard drink for women and two standard drinks for men per day. Some studies suggest moderate intake of alcohol may actually promote HDL levels and be beneficial to cardiovascular health. Excessive intake of alcohol can be damaging to health.

Smoking is very damaging to cardiovascular health and quitting is strongly encouraged.

c. Complementary medicines

Having adopted a healthier diet and lifestyle plan you may want to assist your body further by taking natural, heart-healthy supplements:

  • If you find it hard to incorporate fish into your diet try a fish oil supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids help protect the inner walls of the arteries, reduce the risk of blood clotting and help lower triglyceride levels. Take 1-2g of fish oil per day. Check with your doctor if you are taking any medications.
  • In addition to high fibre foods, consider taking psyllium husks to increase fibre intake. Psyllium has been show to be effective in helping to reduce cholesterol levels in conjunction with a cholesterol-lowering diet. Use a supplement or powder providing 5g twice a day. Drink at least one cup of water straight after each dose and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Your doctor may already have recommended taking a CoQ10 supplement to boost your levels if you are taking a statin. Even if you are not, CoQ10 is an important antioxidant and can be greatly beneficial in promoting a healthy heart and circulatory system. A dose of 30-150mg per day can be used. Consult your doctor if you are taking any medications.

What are trans fats?

Trans fats are produced from liquid vegetable oils that have undergone a process of hydrogenation to make them into a more solid state. They are found in baked goods such as pies, cakes, biscuits and pastries, and may be present in fast foods. On a label trans fats will be listed as ‘hydrogenated oil’, ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oil’

 

Common cholesterol myths

  • Do I have to go on a fat-free diet?

 No. Fats are an important part of your diet but avoid saturated and trans fats and  make sure you eat foods high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats

  • Can I still eat eggs?

Yes. You can eat up to 6 eggs per week (ideally boiled, poached, scrambled) as part of a healthy diet

  • Only people who are overweight have high cholesterol levels?

No. Being overweight IS a risk factor for high cholesterol levels but there are many other factors such as age, diet, lack of exercise and poor diet can affect levels.


Cathyrn Rich has a BA in Natural Plant Sciences from the University of Cambridge and a BSc Health Sciences from the University of Westminster. Cathyrn has practiced as a medical herbalist as well as working in the complementary medicine industry as an educator and technical writer.

 

This article originally appeared in the May edition of Go News published by Go Vita

 

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