I often have patients ask me about ways to lower their cholesterol without taking statin medications. Lots of folks wonder how effective and, frankly, how livable these alternatives can be. So, as a cardiologist, I decided to find out for myself.
I’m currently 34 years old with minimal risk factors for heart disease, aside from a family history. I noticed recently that my LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol had inched above the optimal range. Because high LDL is associated with heart disease risk, I wanted to take action.
In my particular case, the risk factors didn’t indicate that I should begin taking a statin. Everyone’s situation is different, and it’s important to discuss your cholesterol numbers and risk factors with your doctor before starting treatment. Doctors frequently use risk-estimating tools
to help guide this conversation.
We often tell patients that diet – focused on reducing saturated fat and increasing fiber, sometimes incorporating supplements such as plant sterols or other “nutraceuticals” -- is a key factor that will affect cholesterol levels. So, this Midwestern guy raised on meat and potatoes started making some changes. I cut back on the steaks and burgers and added more vegetables. For home cooking, we switched to plant-based oils with high polyunsaturated fat content such as grapeseed, walnut and sunflower. I also tried an over-the-counter supplement of plant sterols that can help lower LDL cholesterol.
It worked. These changes got my numbers down just below the “optimal” threshold. Could I do even better?
Next, I cut meat intake even further. Now, I eat mostly vegetables, fruits, grains and fish. I also added fish oil and fiber supplements. Soluble fiber becomes like gel when mixed with water, and it can prevent cholesterol from being re-absorbed into the bloodstream.
By the end of my self-experiment, I reduced my LDL cholesterol by 29%, which is about the same effectiveness we see from low- or moderate-intensity statin medication. I also learned it’s a plan my family and I can live with long term.
While the dietary approach can reap big rewards, do it under your doctor’s supervision and in tandem with your current cholesterol medication. Don’t adjust or discontinue medication without talking with your doctor first.
You can also try adding moderate exercise that raises your heart rate. That’s been shown to lower LDL by about 5%, or even more when the exercise leads to weight loss. And of course, decreased cholesterol is only one of the many benefits of exercise and weight loss in promoting health.
The fiber, fish oil and plant sterol supplements that I use have been proven effective in lowering cholesterol in various research studies
. However, there are other supplements and fads that are as yet unproven. Always talk with your doctor about any supplements you’re considering.
When these healthy lifestyle changes are started earlier in life, you have more time to realize the benefits.
Wesley Milks is a cardiologist and clinical lipidologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.