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Certain herbs and plant foods really do raise levels of your "good" cholesterol, the heart-protective HDL. But to succeed at increasing HDL with plant substances, you need to be sure you are getting the real herb or the real food.

There’s no doubt that plants have great potential for lowering cholesterol naturally. An astonishing number of herbs and plant foods either increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol or improve the ratio of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol to HDL cholesterol whether you are using cholesterol lowering drugs or a cholesterol lowering diet, or both. Here are just a few.

Herbs for Increasing HDL: What Really Works?

  • Basil leaf increases HDL and lowers both LDL and total cholesterol [1, 2].
  • Blueberry leaf (used in teas and tinctures you can buy at a herb or health food shop) lower LDL and triglycerides, and improve the ratio of LDL to HDL [3].
  • Celery extract [4] and celery seed [5] lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, and improves the ratio of LDL to HDL. The research was done with an extract made by soaking celery in alcohol to make a tincture, and wasn’t done with people, but you might be able to get the same benefit from just eating one or two servings of celery every day, judging from anecdotal reports.
  • Oil of cloves, ground cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and bay leaf (which don’t have to be used together) can increase HDL and lower LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides [6]. Again, the confirmatory research was done in the lab with animals, but there are numerous anecdotal reports of similar benefits for people.
  • Dandelion greens stop the production of fat cells [7], and  increase HDL, and lower LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides [9]. Here again the laboratory confirmation was done with animals but there is anecdotal confirmation from many people.
  • Fenugreek seeds lower LDL [10].
  • Ginger lowers LDL and raises HDL, as shown in a clinical trial [11].
  • Korean red ginseng raises HDL and lowers both LDL cholesterol and triglycerides [12].
  • Grapes and grape juice (not just wine), as well as grapeseed oil used cold (not for cooking), raise HDL cholesterol and prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol into a form that can cause atherosclerosis [13].
  • Nigella, also known as black cumin, doesn’t have any effect on LDL, but it lowers triglycerides and raises HDL [14].
  • Psyllium, the ground seed used as a bulking agent to treat irregularity, doesn’t have any effect on HDL, but it lowers LDL and triglycerides [15].

Each of these foods or herbs is helpful in getting your cholesterol down, but none of them is appropriate for your entire program of natural cholesterol reduction. Just make a point of using them often without any need for using any of them each and every day. However, there is another plant food that can make a significant difference in your HDL, LDL, and total cholesterol levels that you can use every day. That food is olive oil. When it comes to olive oil, health benefits are greatest in virgin olive oil.

Virgin olive oil increases HDL cholesterol and reduces the amount of LDL cholesterol that oxidizes, turning into a plaque that can cause atherosclerosis [16]. Ordinary olive oil doesn't have this effect, because it lacks the healthy plant chemical hydroxytyrosol. This cholesterol modifying chemical is found in virgin olive oil in amounts high enough that you don't have to consume a lot of calories to get the benefits of lowering cholesterol [17]. On the other hand, you can't consume enough olive oil to make a difference for heart health if isn't virgin; cheaper second and third pressings of olive oil just won't work. Combining virgin olive oil with the herb thyme increases its cholesterol lowering benefits, because thyme provides naringenin, eriodictyol and apigenin and phenolic acids such as rosmarinic acid, ferulic acid and caffeic acid, all of which are synergistic with hydroxytyrosol [18].

How much virgin olive oil a day do you need to get higher HDL? A clinical study found results kick in with the consumption of about 25 ml a day [19]. That's five teaspoons, or two scant tablespoons. That's enough olive oil to provide the plant chemicals your liver needs to "flip a switch" and process more LDL into HDL [20]. How much higher will your HDL be? One study found that using olive oil for just three weeks increased the conversion of LDL to HDL by 26 percent [21].Another study found that consuming 25 ml (5 teaspoons) of olive oil a day results in about a 25 percent reduction in the risk of having a heart attack [22].

So use virgin olive oil as the basis of a plant-foods approach to lowering cholesterol naturally, whether or not you take cholesterol lowering drugs, and then use the other helpful vegetables, fruits, and herbs as they naturally fit your diet.  Even without cholesterol lowering drugs, you may be able to achieve normal, healthy cholesterol, and extend your life as you accomplish heart disease prevention.

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