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Plant Sterols for High Cholesterol

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Updated July 14, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Plant sterols are natural substances that may help fight high cholesterol. Sometimes referred to as "phytosterols," plant sterols are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Chemically similar to cholesterol, plant sterols are also available in dietary supplement form.

How Might They Work?

Studies suggest that plant sterols may help keep cholesterol in check by inhibiting the intestines' absorption of cholesterol. In doing so, plant sterols help to reduce circulating levels of cholesterol and lower your levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Health Benefits of Plant Sterols on Cholesterol

A number of studies have shown that regular consumption of plant sterols can help fight high cholesterol. For a 2007 report published in Nutrition Reviews, for instance, researchers sized up the available research on dietary intake of plant sterols and its impact on cholesterol metabolism. Finding that higher intakes of plant sterols are linked to lower cholesterol levels, the report's authors concluded that dietary intake of plant sterols should be part of dietary advice to patients with high cholesterol (as well as to the general public for the prevention and management of heart disease).

In a research review published in Current Atherosclerosis Reports the following year, scientists analyzed previous studies on the cholesterol-lowering effects of plant sterols and concluded that including plant sterols in the diet may be "a safe and effective way to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."

Additionally, a 2009 research review from Recent Patents on Food, Nutrition & Agriculture notes that daily consumption of one to two grams of plant sterols has been found to cause a 10 to 20% reduction in LDL cholesterol in scientific studies.

To date, research on the use of plant sterol supplements for treatment or prevention of high cholesterol is fairly limited. Although a 2004 report published in Current Opinion in Lipidology indicates that consuming plant sterols in supplement form may help lower LDL cholesterol levels, more research needs to be conducted before plant sterol supplements can be recommended as a cholesterol-lowering treatment.

Food Sources

Plant sterols are found naturally in the following foods:

  • almonds
  • Brussels sprouts
  • peanuts
  • vegetable oils (including canola, corn, olive, and sesame oil)
  • wheat bran
  • wheat germ

In addition, a number of fortified foods (including cereal, milk, orange juice, vegetable oil spreads, and yogurt) contain added plant sterols.

Safety

Although consuming plant sterols through food is safe, ingesting large doses of plant sterols in supplement form may cause a number of problems (including diarrhea, indigestion, and nausea).

When Should I Use Them?

To achieve and/or maintain healthy cholesterol levels, the National Cholesterol Education Program (part of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) recommends consuming two grams of plant sterols each day as part of a heart-healthy diet. While plant sterol supplements are often touted as a natural remedy for high cholesterol, there is currently a lack of scientific evidence to support the use of plant sterol supplements for any health condition.

It's important to note that plant sterols (or plant sterol supplements) should not be used in place of doctor-prescribed treatment for high cholesterol. Self-treating high cholesterol with plant sterols and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Sources

AbuMweis SS, Jones PJ. "Cholesterol-lowering effect of plant sterols." Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2008 Dec;10(6):467-72.

Ellegård LH, Andersson SW, Normén AL, Andersson HA. "Dietary plant sterols and cholesterol metabolism." Nutr Rev. 2007 Jan;65(1):39-45.

Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Nguyen TH, Marchie A, Faulkner DA, Ireland C, Josse AR, Vidgen E, Trautwein EA, Lapsley KG, Holmes C, Josse RG, Leiter LA, Connelly PW, Singer W. "Effect of plant sterols in combination with other cholesterol-lowering foods." Metabolism. 2008 Jan;57(1):130-9.

Kamal-Eldin A, Moazzami A. "Plant sterols and stanols as cholesterol-lowering ingredients in functional foods." Recent Pat Food Nutr Agric. 2009 Jan;1(1):1-14.

Ostlund RE Jr. "Phytosterols and cholesterol metabolism." Curr Opin Lipidol. 2004 Feb;15(1):37-41.

Smet ED, Mensink RP, Plat J. Effects of plant sterols and stanols on intestinal cholesterol metabolism: Suggested mechanisms from past to present. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2012 Jul;56(7):1058-72.

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