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Herbs That Lower Cholesterol

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Herbs have been used for treating cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis for centuries. Some of them are quite effective for lowering blood cholesterol and improving lipid profiles. They are generally safe, well-tolerated and may be used with or without prescription cholesterol drugs in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia. This article discusses how 8 herbs commonly used for their cholesterol-lowering properties work.

1. Gum Guggul

Gum guggul is the gum resin obtained from Commiphora wightii or mukul myrrh tree.

It has been used in Ayurveda traditional medicine for centuries to treat rheumatoid arthritis, acne, constipation, and obesity. More importantly, an ancient Indian text described the use of gum guggul in the treatment of a disease characterized by the hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Gum guggul or guggulipid contains a number of bioactive phytochemicals. The most important ones are the guggulsterone and the related guggulsterols.

Studies have shown that gum guggul can lower blood cholesterol levels by multiple mechanisms.

First, it blocks the absorption of cholesterol from the intestines. Secondly, it increases the rate of metabolism by stimulating the release of thyroid hormones and stimulatory catecholamines to increase fat metabolism in the body.

Gum guggul also inhibits the formation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) as well as cholesterol synthesis in the liver. Besides directly lowering the amount of LDL and cholesterol formed in the body, gum guggul speeds up the breakdown of their combination (LDL cholesterol) in the liver.

Lastly, gum guggul has been shown to inhibit the oxidation of lipids by blocking mopping up reactive oxygen species through the increased production of antioxidant enzymes.

These effects on cholesterol synthesis and metabolism result in a significant reduction in the levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.

However, gum guggul does not affect the level of HDL (high-density lipoprotein or “good”) cholesterol.

Not all studies done to investigate the cholesterol-lowering properties of gum guggul agreed with these conclusions. However, there are enough positive studies to support the use of this herbal supplement in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia and also for reducing the risks of atherosclerosis and the other cardiovascular complications that high cholesterol levels cause.

2. Artichoke

Artichoke or Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus is a vegetable and medicinal herb native to Southern Europe and North Africa. It is especially rich in dietary fiber, antioxidants, and essential nutrients.

While the high fiber content of artichoke can contribute to the reduction in blood cholesterol levels, there are other mechanisms involved in the hypocholesterolemic effect of this herb.

Artichoke lowers cholesterol by increasing the fecal excretion of cholesterol through the increased secretion of bile acids. In addition, this vegetable blocks the synthesis of cholesterol in the liver by inhibiting the enzyme, HMG-CoA reductase.

In one study, a group of patients with hypercholesterolemia was given 1800 mg of artichoke extract daily for 6 weeks. The results of the study showed that artichoke reduced the levels of total cholesterol by 19% and LDL cholesterol by 23%.

Besides lowering cholesterol levels, artichoke can also inhibit the oxidation of lipids including cholesterol.

Because it contains a number of natural antioxidants, artichoke can prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol by free radicals and reactive oxygen species. This is important because LDL cholesterol is only harmful to the cardiovascular system after it has been oxidized.

The benefits of artichoke in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia have been the subject of two Cochrane reviews. Both reviews agreed that the herb can indeed lower cholesterol levels even though the reviewers called for more research.

With such strong scientific support, it is no wonder then that artichoke was recommended for reducing cholesterol levels by Dr. Oz.

3. Red Yeast Rice

Red yeast rice is prepared by fermenting rice with the mold, Monascus purpurea. It is bright red-purple in color and, therefore, used to impact color to foods when used in Asian cuisine.

Red yeast rice is also a medicinal herb with a rich history in Chinese traditional medicine.

Once it was discovered that the mold used in the fermentation of this rice also produced a class of compounds with hypocholesterolemic properties, there has been keen interest in the possible use of red yeast rice as a cholesterol-lowering agent.

The mold used in the fermentation of red yeast rice can synthesize statin-like compounds known as monacolins. Eight such monacolins have been isolated from molds of the Monascus species with monacolin K being the most popular.

Red yeast rice contains monacolin K and this monacolin is quite identical to lovastatin, a popular statin drug prescribed by doctors to help reduce cholesterol levels.

Therefore, red yeast rice lowers cholesterol levels by the same mechanisms as statins.

The monacolins in red yeast rice act on the mevalonate pathway responsible for synthesizing sterols such as cholesterol. Specifically, red yeast rice monacolins inhibit the enzyme, HMG-CoA reductase. Therefore, red yeast rice is an effective and affordable alternative to statin drugs.

The results of studies comparing red yeast rice to statins indicate that

  • Lower doses of red yeast rice are needed to produce the same cholesterol-lowering effects as statins
  • Red yeast rice shares the same side effects as statins but those side effects are milder and occur less frequently with red yeast rice supplementation

In addition, there is strong evidence to indicate that there are other cholesterol-lowering agents in red yeast rice besides the statin-like monacolins.

A good number of studies, including meta-analyses and at least one Cochrane review of the evidence to support the use of this medicinal herb in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia, confirmed that red yeast rice can lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels while also increasing the level of HDL cholesterol.

4. Flaxseed

Flaxseed or linseed is a plant crop with very high fiber content. Its use in the manufacturing of linen garments dates back to ancient Egypt.

However, the high fiber content is responsible for its medicinal use as a laxative and also for lowering blood cholesterol levels. Studies show that flaxseed can reduce LDL cholesterol by almost 20% and that its hypocholesterolemic effect is especially useful for postmenopausal women.

When fiber absorbs water, it forms a gel that stimulates increased bowel movement. This means that the dietary fiber in flaxseed reduces the absorption and increases fecal excretion of the contents of the intestines.

Therefore, when flaxseed fiber binds to dietary cholesterol in the intestine, it reduces the amount of cholesterol taken up into systemic circulation.

Besides dietary fiber, other cholesterol-lowering phytochemicals in flaxseed are lignans and omega-3 fatty acids.

Lignans have antioxidant properties. Therefore, they can inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Just as importantly, lignans are phytoestrogens and phytoestrogens, such as soy isoflavones, have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels.

The major omega-3 fatty acid in flaxseed is alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. Omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to lower LDL cholesterol levels and raise HDL cholesterol levels in multiple studies.

In one study, researchers showed that ALA speeds up the breakdown of cholesterol in the liver.

In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are good for cardiovascular health.

How Herbs Lower Cholesterol
  • Block the absorption of cholesterol from the intestines
  • Increase the secretion of bile acid and its fecal excretion along with cholesterol
  • Block the production of cholesterol in the liver by inhibiting enzymes in the mevalonate pathway
  • Speed up the breakdown of LDL cholesterol in the liver by increasing the population of certain receptors

Herbs may also reduce the risks of cardiovascular problems by

  • Preventing the oxidation of cholesterol and other lipids
  • Reducing blood pressure
  • Inhibiting the formation of blood clots

5. Green Tea

Green tea is prepared from the slightly oxidized leaves of Camellia sinensis.

Because it undergoes minimal processing, it retains most of its bioactive phytochemicals. Therefore, green tea is regarded as the most healthful tea. It is particularly rich in antioxidants.

The antioxidants in green tea can inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular problems. However, green tea offers more specific benefits for people with high cholesterol levels.

Studies have shown that regular consumption of green tea lowers the levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.

While some studies indicate that green tea can raise HDL cholesterol levels, other studies found no such benefits.

How does green tea lower cholesterol levels? Researchers found out that the polyphenols in green tea, especially the catechins such as EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), bind to cholesterol in the intestines and prevent its absorption.

To do this, these polyphenols prevent cholesterol from being emulsified and solubilized into micelles.

Since emulsification and micellar solubilization are required for the absorption of all fats, green tea polyphenols significantly reduce the uptake of cholesterol and increase its excretion.

The combination of antioxidant and cholesterol-lowering properties make green tea an especially important herb in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia and cardiovascular diseases.

6. Garlic

Garlic or Allium sativum is a plant in the onion family. Besides its culinary uses, garlic is also a commonly used traditional remedy for a long list of ailments.

Garlic has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. It can help reduce blood sugar levels as well as blood cholesterol levels.

The bioactive phytochemicals in garlic are sulfur-containing compounds such as allicin and S-allycysteine.

These compounds are responsible for the pungent smell of garlic as well as its cholesterol-lowering effect. Studies show that garlic can significantly reduce total cholesterol and triglyceride levels. However, its effect on LDL cholesterol is only modest and it does not affect HDL cholesterol.

These studies also show that garlic lowers blood cholesterol levels by inhibiting multiple enzymes in the mevalonate pathway including HMG-CoA reductase.

Therefore, garlic reduces the production of cholesterol as well as its precursors.

Besides lowering blood cholesterol, garlic can also prevent blood clot formation, reduce blood pressure and inhibit the oxidation of cholesterol.

7. Turmeric

Turmeric is another functional food and traditional remedy. It belongs to the ginger family and the part of the plant used in traditional medicine is the rhizome.

Turmeric imparts a deep orange-yellow color to food and produces the commonly used food coloring known as E100. The phytochemical responsible for this bright color is curcumin and it is also responsible for most of the medicinal value of turmeric.

Studies have proven that curcumin can significantly lower the levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.

One of the mechanisms by which turmeric lowers blood cholesterol is by increasing the fecal excretion of bile acids and cholesterol. In addition, curcumin inhibits the liver enzymes (such as HMG-CoA reductase) required for the synthesis and metabolism of cholesterol.

To speed up the breakdown of cholesterol in the liver, turmeric increases the population of certain receptors such as LDL and liver X receptors. These receptors increase the uptake of cholesterol by liver cells and, therefore, increases its metabolic breakdown.

Because turmeric is used as a seasoning, it can be added to the diet of people with hypercholesterolemia. This is possible because cooking heat does not destroy the bioactive phytochemicals (such as curcumin) in turmeric.

Finally, the antioxidants in turmeric can also prevent the oxidation of cholesterol and contribute significantly to improving cardiovascular health.

8. Alfalfa

Alfalfa or Medicago sativa is a popular forage crop. This legume has been cultivated to feed animals for centuries. Its medicinal benefits are also well established.

In both Chinese and Ayurveda traditional medicines, alfalfa is used to detoxify the body and improve digestion. It is also used in the treatment of edema and arthritis.

Alfalfa is rich in proteins and minerals. However, it is especially rich in vitamins (except vitamin A). It is also one of the few plant sources of vitamins D2 and D3.

Besides these micronutrients, alfalfa is an excellent source of dietary fiber and saponins.

Alfalfa fiber and saponins bind to cholesterol and reduce its absorption in the intestine. In addition, alfalfa saponins can also affect blood cholesterol levels. Studies show that alfalfa lowers LDL cholesterol levels even while increasing the level of HDL cholesterol.

The saponin content of alfalfa extracts varies because its concentration depends on the part of the plant used in preparing the extract. Extracts made from alfalfa roots usually have lower saponin content than those made from the sprouts.





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