Herbs and Supplements to Lower Cholesterol

What the Current Research Says

Many people with high cholesterol seek various ways to reduce their levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as "bad cholesterol," because it is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Herbs and supplements with "cholesterol-lowering" properties are among the options they may consider.

Although the evidence supporting their use is limited, herbs and supplements may be helpful when used alongside cholesterol-lowering drugs and healthy changes in lifestyle.

This article explains why cholesterol is such a health concern and which herbs and supplements may help lower "bad" cholesterol and raise "good" cholesterol. It also looks at other ways to reduce high cholesterol and your overall risk of heart disease.

Nutritional Supplements That Treat High Cholesterol
Verywell / Gary Ferster

Types of Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of waxy fat that your liver makes or that you absorb from foods. Your body needs it because it is a key building block of your cells. It is also needed to make hormones and some digestive fluids.

In some people, though, the cholesterol levels in the blood become too high. But not all types of cholesterol are bad.

Total cholesterol is the sum of two main types of cholesterol, in addition to other lipids:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): Known as "bad cholesterol," LDL can build up in and damage the lining of blood vessels. This may contribute to atherosclerosis, commonly known as hardening of the arteries, as well as other health issues.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This type helps remove other cholesterol from the body, lowering the risk of negative health effects it can cause. Because of this, HDL is referred to as "good cholesterol."

It's the high levels of LDL that are worrisome. Higher levels of HDL are actually good.

And while you may have a high total cholesterol because of high LDL, it's also possible to have a normal total cholesterol and high LDL.

High cholesterol may be diagnosed if:

  • LDL cholesterol is over 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
  • HDL cholesterol is under 60 mg/dL
  • Total cholesterol is over 200 mg/dL

What's considered a healthy or concerning result for you may differ from this based on factors like your age and family health history.

Recap

Not all cholesterol is bad. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the type that clogs arteries and increases the risk of heart disease, while high-density lipoprotein (HDL) helps remove cholesterol from the body and lowers the risk of heart disease.

Supplements and Herbal Remedies

Researchers are still seeking to confirm the usefulness of supplements in treating high cholesterol. For this reason, it remains unclear who can benefit most from them. In general, they are considered safer for younger people with no history or risk factors for heart disease.

Niacin (Vitamin B3)

Niacin, a form of vitamin B3 also called nicotinic acid, is used to lower cholesterol. It appears that niacin lowers LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, while raising "good" HDL cholesterol. Niacin also appears to significantly lower levels of lipoprotein A, another risk factor of atherosclerosis.

Niacin is available in prescription form and as a dietary supplement. The American Heart Association cautions patients to only use the prescription form of niacin for lowering cholesterol.

Niacin can increase the effect of high blood pressure medication. It also may cause nausea, indigestion, gas, diarrhea, or gout. It can worsen peptic ulcers, and trigger liver inflammation or high blood sugar.

The most common side effect of high-dose niacin is skin flushing or hot flashes. This is caused by the widening of blood vessels. Most people only notice this when they initially start taking niacin. The flushing symptoms may ease if niacin is taken with meals.

Some researchers have proposed that high doses of niacin might help to lower cholesterol when combined with commonly used drugs called statins. However, other studies have shown no clinical benefit from doing so, and even suggested the possibility of some harm. The science is inconclusive, so they should be combined only under the close supervision of a healthcare provider.

Because of the possible side effects, people should take niacin only if their healthcare provider prescribes it.

Soluble Fiber

Soluble fiber appears to lower LDL cholesterol by reducing the amount of cholesterol that is absorbed in the intestines.

Soluble fiber binds with cholesterol so that it is excreted from the body. It can be found as a dietary supplement, such as psyllium powder, or in foods such as:

  • Oats, barley, rye
  • Legumes (peas, beans)
  • Some fruits, such as apples, prunes, and berries
  • Some vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, and yams
  • Carob

Getting 5 to 10 grams a day of soluble fiber has been found to lower LDL cholesterol by approximately 5%. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows soluble fiber products to indicate that they are "heart healthy" on the labels.

Other supplements and foods high in soluble fiber include acacia fiber, shirataki noodles, nopal, and flaxseeds.

Plant Sterols and Stanols

Plant stanols and sterols, such as beta-sitosterol, are naturally occurring substances found in certain plants. Stanols are also found as dietary supplements. Some are added to margarine, orange juice, and salad dressings.

Research suggests that plant stanols and sterols may help to lower cholesterol. They are similar to cholesterol in chemical structure and may help block its absorption in the intestines. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends you take in 2 grams of plant sterols and stanols each day.

The FDA allows an approved health claim on phytosterols stating, "Foods containing at least 0.65 gram per serving of vegetable oil plant sterol esters, eaten twice a day with meals for a daily total intake of at least 1.3 grams, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."

Stanols and sterols appear to enhance the effects of other methods to lower cholesterol. In studies, people taking statin drugs to lower cholesterol had an additional improvement in their cholesterol levels with stanols/sterols.

Artichoke Leaf

There is some research suggesting that artichoke leaf extract (Cynara scolymnus) may help to lower cholesterol. Artichoke leaf extract may work by limiting the production of cholesterol in the body.

Artichokes also contain a compound called cynarine. It is believed to increase bile production in the liver and speed the flow of bile from the gallbladder. Both of these actions may boost cholesterol excretion.

However, studies have shown the evidence for using artichoke leaf is not yet convincing and more research is needed.

Other Supplements

Other supplements that have been suggested for cholesterol have less evidence of being useful.

Garlic has now been shown to be ineffective for lowering cholesterol. Another frequently touted supplement is policosanol, which may offer benefits for controlling cholesterol levels, but the research results remain inconclusive.

More research also is needed to see if coenzyme Q10 helps to limit the hardening of the arteries, which is often linked to cholesterol buildup and related heart-health issues.

Studies also suggest that catechin compounds in green tea may help to reduce the body's absorption of cholesterol. Soy, too, has been found to show benefits in lowering cholesterol, but most studies have found minimal effects.

In the case of red yeast rice, there is a potential danger because it contains a naturally occurring form of lovastatin, a prescription drug.

Recap

Among the supplements that may help lower cholesterol are niacin (prescription rather than over-the-counter), soluble fiber, and phytosterols. Other cholesterol-lowering remedies such as artichoke leaf extract, garlic, coenzyme Q10, policosanol, green tea, and red yeast rice are not well supported by research.

Modifying Risk Behaviors

High cholesterol is usually treated based on total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol levels, plus the presence of additional risk factors for heart disease.

While some risk factors cannot be changed, others can. Heart attack risk factors may include:

  • Previous heart attack
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of early heart disease
  • Age over 45 in men and greater than 55 in women
  • Greater than 20% 10-year risk of a heart attack

Of these, not smoking (or quitting if you smoke) is something you can take action on. You can also treat your high blood pressure and diabetes with diet, exercise, weight loss, and medications to keep them under control.

Using Alternative Medicine

Before you decide to use alternative medicine for high cholesterol, follow these tips:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider before starting any natural method to lower cholesterol.
  • Make sure your healthcare provider knows all the supplements and medications you are taking.
  • Don't stop taking any of your existing prescriptions to lower cholesterol. Speak to your healthcare provider if you have questions about your medication.
  • Alternative medicine hasn't been tested for safety. Keep this in mind when considering supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children. Safety also is not certain for those with medical conditions or who are taking other medications.

Recap

Herbs and supplements should not be considered substitutes for medications prescribed by your doctor. Speak with your doctor before using any natural remedy to lower your cholesterol.

Summary

Some people use herbs and supplements to help lower their "bad" LDL cholesterol and raise their "good" HDL cholesterols, either on their own or with medications prescribed by their doctor. While many of these natural remedies are not well supported by research, there are exceptions.

Among the supplements with some proven benefits are niacin, soluble fiber, and phytosterols. Others popularly promoted as "cholesterol-lowering"—such as artichoke leaf extract, garlic, coenzyme Q10, green tea, policosanol, and red yeast rice—lack the scientific evidence to support their use.

Speak with your doctor before using any herb or supplement to treat high cholesterol. In addition to managing your cholesterol with pills, make an effort to eat a healthier diet, exercise regularly, quit cigarettes, and lose weight if needed. Doing so can reduce your overall risk of heart disease.

A Word From Verywell

People who are concerned about high cholesterol may consider taking supplements. This may mean trying these products alone or in combination with traditional medicine.

Either way, it's important to make sure you speak to your healthcare provider before taking niacin, soluble fiber, or one of the other options.

It's also important to remember that the science on how safe or effective these natural products are still isn't settled. More research is needed to understand how supplements may help to lower cholesterol levels.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take for supplements to lower your cholesterol?

    It can vary, but some research has found that certain supplements can reduce cholesterol in several weeks. In one study, participants who ate 2 grams of plant stanol esters on a daily basis reduced LDL cholesterol by 12% in four weeks. In another study, people who took psyllium, a soluble fiber supplement, had significantly lower LDL cholesterol after taking it three times a day for eight weeks.

  • Can fish oil supplements help your cholesterol levels?

    Probably not. While fish oil supplements have been found to lower triglycerides, they can actually cause a small increase in LDL cholesterol. You can get more heart-healthy benefits by eating fatty fish like salmon and sardines, which contain omega-3 fatty acids.

Cholesterol Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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