Naturally Lower Your Cholesterol

| September/October 2001

Quick: What’s your total cholesterol number? Twenty years ago, few people knew. But today, you can probably rattle off your number as automatically as your height. Almost everyone who cares about health knows that high total cholesterol—greater than 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) of blood—is a major risk factor for heart attack. But perhaps not everyone knows that cholesterol should be kept below 200 mg/dl. Friends compare numbers. Doctors routinely check cholesterol, and if it’s high, they are quick to recommend a low-fat diet and prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications. Advertisements tout cholesterol-free foods and foods that help reduce it, notably oat bran and soy.

So what more is there to say? Plenty. The latest research shows that high cholesterol is more hazardous than previously believed. Fortunately, scientists have identified more herbal, nondrug approaches to controlling it than ever.

Cholesterol basics

Cholesterol is a waxy compound with a nasty reputation. But it’s not all bad. In fact, without it, the body can’t make cell membranes, sex hormones and the bile acids that help digest fats. But it takes only a little cholesterol—very little—to meet all of the body’s needs, and the liver can make all that’s necessary. As soon as you start eating foods that contain cholesterol, you risk getting too much and developing cholesterol-related illnesses, notably heart disease and stroke, which together account for one-third of the deaths in the United States.

The red-flag foods are animal products such as meats, egg yolks and whole-milk dairy products. (In addition, heredity makes some people’s livers overproduce cholesterol, a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia.)

Scientists have identified two forms of cholesterol-carrying proteins that ride into the bloodstream. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or the “bad” cholesterol, gets incorporated into deposits (plaques) that develop along artery walls. As plaques grow, they narrow the arteries, causing atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries.” As a result, blood flow becomes limited, boosting the risk of heart attack, stroke, and many other conditions: high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, intermittent claudication (atherosclerotic leg pain), and even impotence. Meanwhile, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or the “good” cholesterol, plucks LDL from the blood and returns it to the liver for elimination.

According to the National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Institutes of Health, total cholesterol should be no higher than 200 mg/dl, LDL should be kept below 160, and HDL above 35. Recently, however, studies have shown that the risk for heart attack and stroke begins to rise at total cholesterol levels well below 200. Increasingly, health experts recommend keeping it below 180. As a result, doctors have become more aggressive about treating high cholesterol. And no wonder. According to the American Heart Association, almost half of American adults have cholesterol levels over 200, and 18 percent—some 40 million people—are above 240.

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