Mother Earth Living

Ask the Herbalist: Lower Cholestrol

Garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper and reishi can help lower cholesterol.
By Terry Willard and Jill Stansbury
March/April 2001
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Garlic can help with cholesterol woes.


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My mother has very high cholesterol (275). She’s sixty-seven and refuses to take her prescription medication. I think that’s okay, but I’d like to help her with some herbs. I’ve instructed her to eat lots of oat bran and oatmeal. She takes four capsules (500 mg each) of garlic three times a day. Is there anything else she can do or take to help her lower her cholesterol?
—C. B., Helendale, California 

Willard responds: This is a fairly common problem in our clinic. The four most important herbs to consider are garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum), and reishi. We should also consider Syndrome X as a possible cause of this problem.

Garlic is useful in controlling and preventing atherosclerosis and lowering blood cholesterol. It not only lowers total serum cholesterol (6 to 12 percent in three months), it lowers the LDL (“bad” cholesterol) 12 to 15 percent while increasing the HDL (“good” cholesterol). I usually suggest 1,000 mg twice daily.

Ginger may lower both serum and hepatic cholesterol while inhibiting platelet aggregation. I often use ginger tea for this but have also used 250 to 500 mg in capsule form twice daily.

Cayenne is a strong, local circulatory stimulant. In studies, cayenne has significantly lowered both plasma cholesterol and triglycerides, but even more important, it has improved patients’ LDL to HDL ratio. Capsaicin, cayenne’s active constituent, has been shown to decrease platelet aggregation while thinning the blood by a different mechanism than aspirin. I usually give this in capsule form, 250 to 500 mg during two meals daily.

Reishi may protect from the effects of accumulated fatty acid and cholesterol. This herb also showed significant results in lowering blood lipids and fatty deposits in the liver, with significant drops in cholesterol and triglyceride levels noted after two months. I have my patients take a concentrate of (15:1), 150 to 300 mg, twice daily.

Syndrome X (or insulin resistance) is one of the major causes of increases in cholesterol and heart attack. This means that some people get an increase in blood fats by consuming carbohydrates such as flours, sugars, and some starchy vegetables. Reduction of carbohydrates in the diet can often be the most important item in reducing blood lipids and the risk of heart attacks.

Stansbury responds: Your mother’s blood pressure, HDL/LDL ratio, triglyceride, and blood glucose levels, if all normal, make me less concerned about her cholesterol than I would be if any of these were also high or borderline. If your mother is not obese and exercises, doesn’t smoke, is generally healthy, and has no other risk factors for heart disease, her cholesterol is merely a number on a piece of paper. Cardiologists are not too concerned about reducing the cholesterol of those over seventy-five if there’s no accompanying heart or circulatory disease. However, there is much your mother may do to lower the number.

A good diet and regular exercise are essential. While people generally know of the dangers of too much “bad fat” (such as hydrogenated oils and fried foods), not everyone realizes how much the consumption of sugar and flour elevates cholesterol. Restrict sugars, candy, and flour-based foods, favoring fresh fruits and vegetables. Good fats such as olive or fish oil don’t need to be restricted, nor do eggs, in moderation. High-fiber diets may lower cholesterol, so keep up the good work with the oats.

Liver herbs can help lower cholesterol because the liver processes and metabolizes cholesterol. Dandelion, burdock, and Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium) may be useful. Commercial formulas, sometimes marketed as “lipotropic factors,” combine such herbs with choline and inositol, two lesser-known B vitamins that are needed by the liver to process cholesterol. Continue for at least three months before rechecking cholesterol levels. Many spicy culinary herbs such as garlic are noted to reduce cholesterol and/or improve HDL/LDL ratios. Cayenne, ginger, cinnamon, curry, and turmeric in the diet or in capsules may help. B vitamins, needed to maintain healthy blood fats, should be supplemented. Besides choline, folic acid and niacin appear most helpful, but it’s wise to take a comprehensive B formula. Anti- oxidant vitamins are beneficial to protect blood vessels from damage. The Indian herb guggul (Commiphora mukul) also may reduce cholesterol.


Terry Willard is a clinical herbalist, president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners, and founder of the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of eight books and a CD-ROM, Interactive Herbal (Follgard CD Visions, 1998). 

Jill Stansbury has been a naturopathic physician for more than ten years, with a private practice in Battle-ground, Washington. She is the chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, and the author of many books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Publication International, 1997). 

The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.


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