Alternatives To Statins

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Drugs and Health, Food and Health, Supplements and Health

How Do Stanols And Sterols Lower Cholesterol?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

alternatives to statins%BLOG_TITLE%Are there alternatives to statins?  If you have been looking for natural approaches for lowering your cholesterol and protecting your heart, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about plant stanols and sterols lately.

What Are Stanols and Sterols & What Do They Do?

Just what are plant stanols and sterols and why does the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend them as a natural approach for lowering cholesterol?

Stanols and sterols are natural substances found in plants that have a structural resemblance to cholesterol. Because they look a lot like cholesterol, they compete with cholesterol for absorption from the intestine into the mucosal cells lining the intestine. However, once they get into the intestinal mucosal cells they are recognized as foreign and are immediately pumped back into the intestine so that they never get into the bloodstream.

lower cholesterolLet me give you an analogy. Let’s think of the intestinal mucosal cells as a nightclub. The doorman doesn’t check IDs. He lets everyone into the club. Pretty soon the word gets around and stanols and sterols start lining up at the door. If a cholesterol molecule comes along, he gets discouraged by the line and doesn’t even try to get in. What the stanols and sterols don’t know is that there is a bouncer inside the club who does check IDs throws everyone who doesn’t belong there out the back door.

When you think about it, this is the best of all possible worlds. Cholesterol molecules don’t get into the bloodstream and neither do the stanols and sterols.

 

Alternatives to Statins:  How Do Stanols and Sterols Lower Cholesterol?

stanols and sterols lower cholesterolAs part of their Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program the NIH recommends that people with elevated cholesterol consume 2 grams of plant stanols and sterols a day because over 80 clinical studies have proven that they work.

Two grams a day of stanols and sterols is sufficient to lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) by 9 to 13%. And many other clinical studies have shown that lowering LDL cholesterol by that much will lower your risk of a heart attack by 18-26%.

No wonder the NIH is so bullish on stanols and sterols!

 

Answers To The Questions You Didn’t Think To Ask

Here are answers to some questions that you haven’t even thought of yet:

#1: If 2 grams a day is good, would more be better?

No. Studies clearly show that 2 grams/day is optimal. Higher intakes do not lead to a significantly greater reduction in LDL cholesterol.

#2: Are there any side effects from consuming plant stanols & sterols on a daily basis?

No. That’s the great thing. Plant sterols and stanols are natural substances that we consume every day – and clinical studies have shown that they have no side effects.

#3: Is there some magical stanol/sterol combination that is more effective than others (as some supplement manufacturers would have you believe)?

fruits and vegetables lower cholesterol naturallyNo. Numerous studies have shown that stanols and sterols from many different sources have exactly the same effect and that it doesn’t matter whether they are esterified or not.

#4: Can I get 2 grams a day of stanols and sterols from my diet?

It’s unlikely. Even the best natural sources (usually fruits and vegetables) only have 5 to 40 mg per serving. If you are a vegetarian you can expect to get around 700 mg from your diet. If you consume a typical American diet you get around 250 mg and if you eat a lot of fast food you are probably getting less than 100 mg.

#5: I’ve noticed that food manufactures have started fortifying foods with stanols and/or sterols. Is this a good choice for me?

Not necessarily. You need to remember that Big Food Inc is not always your friend. To get 2 grams of stanols from Benecol you would need to consume 280 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat and 1.2 grams of trans fat. Two grams of stanols from Promise activ Super-Shot only costs you 70 calories, but it comes with artificial colors and 8 grams of sugar plus sucralose.

#6: When should I consume stanols and sterols if I want to maximize my LDL cholesterol reduction?

Any time from 30 minutes prior to your meal to with your meal is ideal – but the plant sterols and stanols will exert their beneficial effects for several hours so the time that you take the stanols & sterols is not critical.

#7: Are plant sterols and stanols a source of dietary fiber?

No. Plant stanols & sterols and dietary fiber work by different mechanisms – but they do complement each other in lowering LDL cholesterol. As a matter of fact, the NIH Therapeutic Lifestyle Program recommends 10-25 grams/day of soluble fiber along with the 2 grams/day of stanols and sterols. You should consider stanols/sterols and dietary fiber as a powerful one-two punch in your battle to lower your LDL cholesterol naturally.

#8: I’m already taking a statin drug. Is it OK to take plant stanols & sterols as well?

Absolutely. The NIH recommends that people using statin drugs also follow their Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program – which includes 2 grams of plant stanols and sterols a day. In fact, because the effects of statins and plant sterols & stanols are additive, you may be able to reduce your dosage of statins or eliminate them entirely – which means less cost and less risk of side effects to you. [Note: You should partner with your physician in determining the dosage of statins to take.]

What I do not recommend is that you go off your statin drug and switch to a supplement containing stanols and sterols without consulting your doctor. Stanols and sterols have a more modest cholesterol lowering effect (and fewer side effects) than statin drugs. So if you were to just go off your statin and switch to a stanol/sterol supplement, your cholesterol levels might actually go up.

#9: Should I ask my doctor before taking plant stanols & sterols?

I always recommend that you keep your doctor informed about what you are doing. However, because the NIH recommends plant sterols and stanols for people with elevated cholesterol, your doctor is very likely to approve.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • Plant stanols and sterols can be an important part of a holistic approach to lowering cholesterol naturally. In fact, the NIH recommends 2 grams/day of plant stanols and sterols as part of its Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program  for lowering cholesterol.
  • 2 grams/day of plant stanols and sterols lowers LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) by an average of 9 to 13%, which is sufficient to decrease your heart attack risk by 18-26%.
  • Here are the answers to the most common questions I receive about stanols and sterols (for the full response read the article above)
  • 2 grams of stanols & sterols a day is optimal. More is not better.
  • There are no side effects to adding stanols & sterols to your diet.
  • There is no “magical” sterol/stanol formulation. They all work about the same.
  • It is very unlikely that you can get 2 grams/day of stanols & sterols from your diet.
  • It is best to consume stanols & sterols before or with a meal, but the exact timing isn’t crucial.
  • Stanols & sterols are not the same as dietary fiber, but stanols/sterols and dietary fiber complement each other as part of a holistic approach to lower cholesterol.
  • It is OK to take stanols & sterols along with a statin drug. In fact, this is part of the approach recommended by the NIH Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program. However, I do not recommend going off of a statin drug and substituting stanols & sterols without the permission of your doctor.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Don Merriman

    |

    Dr. Chaney, What are your thoughts on niacin for cholesterol control? I have a genetic problem with Lp(a) and the only thing that lowers it is niacin. The niacin also affects other blood factors for the better. I discovered niacin from a book, Cholesterol Control Without Diet – The Niacin Solution, written by Dr. William Parsons Jr. He pioneered niacin in the late 50’s at the Mayo Clinic.
    Thanks.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Don,

      Niacin can work, but it can also cause liver damage at the dosage required to lower cholesterol. You should take niacin only under the care of a health professional who will monitor you for possible toxicity.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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