Certainly, people with high cholesterol in their blood are more likely to have heart attacks or strokes. Cholesterol builds up on the artery walls and makes them narrow, which can lead to blockages. To stay safe, it’s recommended in the journal Circulation (72:686) that people with high cholesterol should get treatment to lower it. But what exactly counts as “high cholesterol” is the important question.
To understand this, we should start by saying that cholesterol is a mix of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein), and HDL is good while LDL is not so good. You should only be concerned about your cholesterol if you have too much LDL.
With that in mind, let’s talk about cholesterol levels. If your cholesterol is above 230 mg-percent, you should follow a strict low-cholesterol diet. When it’s at 260 mg-percent or higher, your doctor may consider giving you medication to lower it. On the other hand, if your cholesterol is above 200 mg-percent (or above 170 mg-percent for children), it’s best to avoid foods high in animal fat like eggs, whole milk, butter, cream, cheese, and fatty meats, as these can make your cholesterol levels go above 230 if you’re not careful.
Let’s talk about some foods and nutrients that are good for your heart and can lower your cholesterol levels:
Researchers from the University of Oregon found that fish oil is more effective than vegetable oil at lowering high levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood. They gave this oil as a supplement to people with high blood lipids (hyperlipidemia), and the amount they used was like eating about a pound of fish every day. They decided to do this study because they noticed that Eskimos, who mainly eat fish, rarely have heart disease. This information was reported in Medical World News (23#2:97).
Salmon oil, available in Maxepa capsules, is now known to help lower cholesterol levels and prevent hardening of the arteries. This can reduce the risks of having a heart attack or stroke. According to the Medical Letter (24:99), each Maxepa capsule contains 180 mg of a healthy fat called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). This is about one-tenth of the amount used in studies that showed positive effects. However, it’s not yet clear if taking this much Maxepa (1 capsule a day, totaling 1800 mg daily) for a long time is safe. Since Maxepa is considered a “food,” it hasn’t undergone the typical safety testing that the FDA requires for new drugs.
Furthermore, researchers have discovered that the substances in salmon oil can make it slightly harder for the blood to clot, as reported in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine (315:892). But when taken at regular doses, this effect alone isn’t likely to cause any serious bleeding problems. In fact, the increase in the “bleeding time” test, which is done by pricking a finger, after taking large daily doses for a month is smaller than what happens when you take just one aspirin tablet.
However, we shouldn’t overlook this because if you take both aspirin and salmon oil together, they could increase the risk of bleeding, which could be unsafe in certain situations. Additionally, like with aspirin, it’s a good idea to stop taking salmon oil at least two days before having surgery. The next article will provide more information about different fish oil products.
Here are some important safety tips to think about before using fish oil supplements.
- Different Fish Oil Products: Not all Omega-3 fish oil supplements are the same, even though they contain similar amounts of the cholesterol-lowering components EPA and DHA. These products are similar to old-fashioned cod liver oil and also contain some vitamins A, D, and sometimes vitamin E. If a product’s label says it has 2 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamins A and D, it’s okay as long as you’re not already getting a lot of these vitamins from other sources. But many of these products have a significant amount of vitamin E, sometimes as much as 6 percent of the RDA per capsule. This can be a concern. If you take 10 fish oil capsules a day, you’d be getting 60 percent of the RDA for vitamin E. Too much vitamin E, when combined with what you get from other sources, could lead to internal bleeding. EPA, the main cholesterol-lowering ingredient in fish oil, already thins the blood, which might increase the risk of bleeding after an injury. When you add vitamin E to this, it raises the risk of bleeding. Some fish oil products like Maxepa, Proto-Chol, and Promega don’t have added vitamin E and are considered more refined, which justifies their higher price.
- Fish Oil and Diabetes: Omega-3 fish oil supplements were thought to be good for diabetics because they help lower cholesterol levels, which can clog arteries. However, there’s some unfortunate news reported in Medical World News (28#1:104). Omega-3 fish oils have been found to reduce the amount of insulin your body makes in response to food, which can lead to higher blood sugar levels after meals. Since diabetics already struggle to make enough insulin, taking fish oil supplements could make things worse. It might be possible to overcome this by taking more insulin, but until we know more about this effect, it’s safer for diabetics to avoid fish oil capsules altogether.
Eating Foods with Lots of Fiber
No matter which high-fiber foods you choose, they all share a common trait: our bodies can’t break them down. This means they don’t give us any calories, but they do fill up space in our stomachs and intestines. This can help us feel full and satisfied, as explained in U.S. Pharmacist (12#7:42).
Certain types of fiber, such as wheat bran, can make your stools bigger but might also cause constipation in some cases. On the other hand, oat bran can make your stools softer and easier to pass. Oat bran also helps lower cholesterol, which is a good thing. For many people, a mix of these brans could be a good choice. Don’t forget that salad, veggies, and fruits (especially when you keep the skin on) also give you some dietary fiber.
Fiber in our diet has a tendency to stick to things in our intestines and can partly stop them from getting absorbed. This is one reason why it can help with weight loss. But, it can also get in the way of absorbing certain medicines and important nutrients like calcium. So, if you’re taking medicines for things like blood pressure, heart issues, or epilepsy, or if you’re taking calcium for your bones, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a high-fiber diet.
The Pritikin Diet
Dr. Nathan Pritikin created an institution named after himself that promotes a diet high in fiber and low in fat and cholesterol, along with an active lifestyle involving lots of exercise. He passed away in 1985 due to cancer. However, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine (313:52) revealed that when they examined his heart and coronary arteries after his death, there was no sign of atherosclerosis (the hardening of arteries due to fat and cholesterol buildup). This is quite remarkable because 30 years earlier, before he began his diet and exercise regimen, he had severe heart disease and extremely high cholesterol levels. Dr. Pritikin’s own life showed that by following the same advice he gave, he completely eliminated arterial disease and set a great example for all of us.
Cholesterol and Oats
Many diets aimed at lowering cholesterol, as mentioned in Postgraduate Medicine (77#8:29), often focus too much on things you shouldn’t do and only a few things you should do.
Many of us struggle to cut down on eating animal fats by a lot. Plus, even if we eat more fiber, it usually only lowers our cholesterol by about 10 percent. When cholesterol is really high, some people have to take medication, and a few have to do so all the time. But what can regular folks do to lower their cholesterol without taking medicine?
The solution might be as simple as eating some oat bran every day. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (40:1146), if we have around three and a half ounces of oat bran daily in things like cereal or muffins that you can find in most stores, most of us can reduce our cholesterol levels by about 20 percent. This plan should be easy to follow, and it’s even more effective if we also cut down on animal fats. This way, we may not need expensive cholesterol-lowering medications, which can sometimes have side effects.
Oat bran has a special kind of fiber that dissolves in water and helps lower cholesterol levels in a few ways. First, it makes the liver release more acid into the intestines, which helps break down cholesterol. Second, when oat fiber breaks apart in the intestines, it turns into substances that, once absorbed, stop our body tissues from making too much cholesterol. So, oat bran can reduce cholesterol not only from the food we eat but also from our own body tissues.
A study at the University of California, as reported in Postgraduate Medicine (84#2:280), carefully compared the effects of oat bran with wheat bran, whole wheat flour, and a mix of wheat and oat brans. Surprisingly, only oat bran caused a noticeable decrease in cholesterol and triglycerides. What’s interesting is that they only used two rounded tablespoons of oat bran every day in the study, and there were no reported side effects.
But, it makes you think, if they had taken more oat bran, would there have been any side effects? In one survey, about 15 percent of people mentioned they couldn’t have oat bran because it gave them lots of bloating and diarrhea. It’s possible they were taking too much bran. If they had just taken two rounded tablespoons a day, they might not have experienced those issues and could still get the same cholesterol-lowering benefits. It’s often true that too much of a good thing can cause problems.
Oat bran can lower cholesterol levels in people with diabetes. Diabetics often struggle to keep their cholesterol in check and are at a higher risk of having cholesterol buildup in their arteries, which can lead to issues like heart attacks and strokes.
The Quaker Oats Company sells oat bran hot cereal, which you can find in lots of grocery and health food stores. When you combine oat bran with salmon oil, you have two safe and powerful natural options to help control cholesterol without needing medication.
Vitamin C Helps Lower Cholesterol
Even when people try to eat right, some still can’t get their cholesterol to a healthy level without medication. These medications are costly, require a doctor’s prescription, and can sometimes have severe side effects.
Now, based on information in Lancet, vitamin C has been shown to gradually reduce blood cholesterol levels safely. In the past, not everyone was sure if vitamin C could do this, but recent studies involving a large number of patients from different backgrounds have provided evidence to support its cholesterol-lowering effect.
If your cholesterol levels are already normal, vitamin C won’t make them go even lower. But if your cholesterol is too high, vitamin C can gradually bring it down towards the normal range. The report suggests that taking one gram of vitamin C every day is enough. If you start using it to lower high cholesterol, it’s a good idea to keep doing it for the long term.
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are easy and tasty, but not all of them are good for you, says Consumer Reports (CR) (51#10:628). While the main ingredients like corn, wheat, oats, raisins, and nuts are healthy, many cereals have too much saturated fat (like coconut oil) and salt added to make them tastier and more appealing, which can be bad for your health.
According to CR, the well-liked Quaker 100% Natural Cereal contains a surprisingly high level of saturated fat due to its coconut content. This type of fat can contribute to problems like high cholesterol, heart attacks, and strokes. The CR article also mentions that many cereals with fiber and bran have a lot of added salt or sugar, sometimes both.
Fiber and bran products are widely liked because they can help with constipation, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of colon cancer. However, it’s unfortunate that these products often have high amounts of added salt, sugar, or fat.
You can easily make a healthy high-fiber cereal without any extra ingredients. Just boil some water and mix in powdered oat bran. This hot cereal won’t have sugar, salt, or fat in it, unless you choose to add them yourself.
There has been a lot of mixed information about how coffee affects cholesterol levels in the blood. Some studies suggest that even drinking a moderate amount of coffee can raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But, other research doesn’t show these effects. A new report in the Lancet (2:1283) might help us understand why these results have been so different.
The confusion started when researchers in Norway conducted a study. They found that drinking coffee increased the levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood. What’s interesting is that the more coffee people drank, the stronger this effect became. Because of this, the New England Journal of Medicine (308: 1454) suggested that people who drink a lot of coffee might have double the risk of heart disease. However, researchers in the United States couldn’t confirm these findings.
A recent report suggests that the difference in coffee’s impact on cholesterol levels might be due to how it’s prepared. When coffee is made by boiling it (like in the Norwegian study), it can raise cholesterol levels. However, when we use a coffee filter (which is common in the U.S.A.), there doesn’t appear to be any negative effect on blood cholesterol or heart health. We’re not sure about percolated coffee, but it’s possible it could have similar unwanted effects as boiling coffee, although this hasn’t been proven yet.
People who use plant-based alternatives instead of milk and cream to cut down on animal fats might want to know that many of these alternatives contain coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. These oils are high in saturated fat.
Most vegetable and fish oils are good for you because they are unsaturated fats. They don’t clog up your heart and arteries like saturated animal fats do. But there are exceptions, like coconut and palm oils. Even though they come from plants, they are high in saturated fat, which is usually found in animal tissues. This information comes from Modern Medicine (54#3:21).
If you want to steer clear of saturated fats, it’s not a good idea to use nondairy creamers that have coconut or palm oils in them. To avoid these oils, make sure to check the ingredients list on the products you use.
Nicotine Acid Excess
Taking too much nicotinic acid as a dietary supplement can indeed lower cholesterol levels, but some folks have taken extremely high doses, which have harmed their livers.
The Southern Medical Journal (76:239) tells us about a man who took around four grams (4,000 mg) of nicotinic acid every day for a few months. He got sick and had symptoms like fever, yellowing of the skin (jaundice), nausea, vomiting, and pain, along with swelling and tenderness in his abdomen. Tests showed that his liver wasn’t working properly. Luckily, all these problems went away as soon as he stopped taking nicotinic acid.
But, even though nicotinic acid is a part of the vitamin B complex, he didn’t think it could make him sick. So, a year later, he began taking large doses of nicotinic acid once more. And, once again, he experienced the same symptoms, which were once again shown to be caused by liver problems. The symptoms went away a second time when he stopped taking nicotinic acid.
There are 11 more cases in medical reports where people had liver problems because they were taking three to four grams of nicotinic acid every day. These doses are way higher (30 to 40 times) than the recommended 100 mg daily dose to help lower cholesterol. But remember, the most important thing to prevent heart problems is still to cut down on animal fat and cholesterol in your diet.
Adding chromium to our diets, as mentioned in the Journal of the American Medical Association (247:3046), could help our bodies manage sugar better. You can get chromium from brewer’s yeast or tablets with inorganic chromium. This supplement helps by making insulin, which is how people without diabetes handle sugar, work better.
Also, scientists have found that chromium can make the cholesterol in our blood better. It raises the “good” HDL cholesterol and lowers the “bad” LDL cholesterol. Chromium is naturally found in wine and certain brands of beer. The Journal suggests that this might be one way a small daily glass of wine can help lower the chances of having a deadly heart attack.