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Cholesterol medications are almost universally prescribed, but smart natural interventions for lowering cholesterol naturally have advantages for most people (just not all).

Lowering cholesterol has become the holy grail of modern medicine. Lowering cholesterol naturally, however, is showing up on your doctor's radar screen.

These days it seems that many doctors aren't concerned with normal cholesterol levels. They just want any cholesterol level to be lower. Some doctors are so enamored of cholesterol lowering drugs hat they have even suggested putting them in the water supply [1]. European doctors, in particular, like the idea of using low-cost statin drugs to treat low-risk men and women over the age of 45 [2]. There's not much doubt that taking a statin drug is a good idea if you have atherosclerosis that progressed to the point that you had to get a stent to open an artery. For people who have stents, statin drugs lower the risk of death about 40 percent and the risk of having to get another stent by about 25 percent [3]. 

However, the benefit of statins for stent patients probably isn't that they lower cholesterol. Their real benefit probably is that they lower inflammation. The fact is, statins lower cholesterol but aren't beneficial in terms of extending life or preventing progression of disease in people who have other conditions associated with vascular disease, such as congestive heart failure. [4] The benefits of statins are more significant in people who are over 80 than in people who are under 80 [5]. On top of that, taking statins can cause side effects such as muscle damage [6]. If you haven't already had a heart attack, or you haven't received a stent or a bypass to prevent one, then lowering cholesterol naturally may be more appropriate.

What Are the Tools for Lowering Cholesterol Naturally?

When holistic health practitioners talk about lowering cholesterol naturally, they are usually giving advice in terms of diet, exercise, plant medicines, and vitamins. Not all of these holistic interventions work equally well, and just as there is no medication that succeeds in absolutely every patient who uses it, there is no single natural intervention that lowers cholesterol in everyone who attempts it. Each method, however, benefits someone. Here's how to tell if that someone might be you.

Who Benefits from a Cholesterol-Lowering Diet?

There is a very fundamental reason that diets usually don't do a lot of good for lowering cholesterol. Your body makes most of your cholesterol itself. Only about 15 percent of the cholesterol in your body comes from your food. The average benefit of cholesterol lowering diet is just 2 percent. [7] And fifth years when scientists were publishing accurate data that lowering fat in your diet might lower your cholesterol somewhere between 10 and 15 percent, they left out their findings that doing this didn't lower the risk of heart disease [8]. Generations of elderly people have given up butter and started eating margarine on the basis of less than totally honest science.

Even if you, as one man featured in the New England Journal of Medicine actually did, ate 25 eggs a day for 25 years, your body probably would adapt so that your small intestine simply absorbed only the cholesterol you needed [9]. Even if you have a very-high cholesterol condition called familial hypercholsteroemia, that sometimes causes cholesterol to soar to 5000 mg/dl (130 mmol/liter) and more, strictly following a low-cholesterol diet isn't going to do a lot for your cholesterol numbers [10].

That doesn't mean that eating a lot of fatty food is OK. While your diet doesn't have a big impact on your cholesterol numbers, it can have a huge impact on inflammation. It's actually the inflammation in your arteries that causes harmless cholesterol to become dangerous, calcified plaques.

Exercise to Lower Cholesterol

Maybe you have difficulty with diet. You can force yourself to go to the gym, but you want to eat the foods you love. Can you exercise your high cholesterol away?

It's important to keep in mind that your ultimate objective isn't to lower your cholesterol. It's to have open arteries. There's a growing body of evidence that exercise alone won't keep your arteries open. You also need an anti-inflammatory diet. [11] However, if you exercise regularly for years (or if you enroll in a faster, passive exercise program like EECP, external extracorporeal counterpulsation therapy), you may develop collateral arteries that keep you alive even when your original arteries are completely closed by cholesterol deposits [12].

Who Benefits from Herbal Medicines for High Cholesterol?

Using plant-derived medicines for cholesterol in lieu of cholesterol lowering drugs  is a little tricky. There is one "herbal" medicine for high cholesterol, red yeast rice, that actually is a naturally occurring form of the prescription drug Mevachor, only made by a single-celled yeast, not a chemical manufacturing process [13]. Bizarrely, the US Food and Drug Administration won't let natural products makers produce a standardized product you could use for reliable, predictable results. However, in other countries, there is clinical experience in using red yeast rice plus the polyphenols from olive oil (not the olive oil itself). In this clinical trial, the combination lowered total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, the particular kind of LDL cholesterol that actually causes atherosclerosis called apoB, and blood pressure. Total cholesterol levels went down on average 24 percent. Even more importantly, the kind of lower LDL the treatments achieved was lower oxidized cholesterol. Oxidized LDL cholesterol levels went down on average 20 percent. This is the kind of cholesterol that actually forms plaques. However, about one in thirty users had problems such as Segawa syndrome (muscle rigidity), joint pain, or rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of muscle tissue). [14] That's because red yeast rice actually is a statin drug.

What about other herbal interventions for high cholesterol? Various Chinese herbal medicines lower cholesterol and improve symptoms associated with atherosclerosis [15], but you have to get a "custom formula" from a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine for reliable results. You won't really be getting treatment for "high cholesterol." You'll be getting a treatment for the disharmony of your Heart (the energy organs in Chinese traditional medicine are personalized and the words are capitalized) in the broader sense of your emotions, your "energy body," and also your physical heart [16].

There's evidence that bitter herbs that contain berberine, like coptis and Oregon grape root can lower cholesterol by stimulating your liver to remove LDL cholesterol from your bloodstream [17]. Green tea seems to work the same way [18]. Garlic may not really be all that great for lowering cholesterol, but it may improve clotting factors in your blood so you are less likely to suffer a clot [19].

I'll be discussing even more herbs for lowering cholesterol in later articles. Just remember that it isn't primarily lowering cholesterol that you are looking for. It's heart disease prevention, which may be coincidental to lowering cholesterol naturally.

One More Method Worth a Mention: Vitamins for Lowering Cholesterol

We all know vitamins are vital. Whether you believe in vitamin supplementation or not, you at least need vitamins in your diet to stay alive, although you won't necessarily keel over tomorrow, or in a week, or even in a year if you don't get every single one.

Vitamins for lowering cholesterol aren't really acting as "vitamins." They are acting more as drugs. They can have their own side effects, especially if you are using high-dose niacin therapy, which is something you should only do under a doctor's supervision. [20]

Vitamin therapy for keeping your arteries flexible, however, is more about making sure you get all the vitamins you need rather than taking a huge dose. Vitamins A, B12, C, D, E, and K are all necessary for reducing arterial stiffness [21].

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