The body needs cholesterol to make hormones and vitamins and to digest food. But too much of this waxy substance – particularly the “bad" LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – can attach to the walls of arteries and limit or block the flow of blood, eventually causing heart disease. “Good" HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol from the body to the liver, which eliminates it from the body.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 102 million adults in the U.S. have total cholesterol levels at or above 200 mg/dL, which is above healthy levels.
Many patients with high cholesterol take cholesterol-lowering medications, known as “statins." Although statins effectively reduce cholesterol in the blood, some people who use them experience side effects, including muscle-related issues, diabetes, and an elevated risk for stroke.
Fortunately, lowering cholesterol naturally sometimes allows patients to avoid – or reduce – medication. (Always talk to your physician before stopping a medication or changing the dose.)
What Causes High Cholesterol?
Many things contribute to high total cholesterol, which is calculated by adding your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels and 20 percent of your triglyceride level. These are the key risk factors:
- A poor diet - Consuming saturated fat, such as red meat and whole-fat dairy products, and trans fats, typically found in foods that contain hydrogenated oils, such as stick margarine, french fries and many packaged snacks and sweets.
- Heredity - Some people inherit genes that predispose them to develop high cholesterol.
- Age - The risk for high cholesterol increases naturally with age.
- Obesity - Being overweight or obese tends to increase your LDL levels, lowers HDL cholesterol and raises triglycerides, a particularly dangerous type of blood fat, increasing your risk for coronary heart disease.
- Inactivity - A sedentary lifestyle increases your LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL cholesterol. It also contributes to obesity.
- Diabetes - Diabetes typically lowers HDL cholesterol levels and raises triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels.
Natural Ways to Lower Cholesterol
Medications aren't always needed to protect heart health. You may be able to lower your cholesterol significantly by following these measures:
The saying, “exercise is the best medicine” has its merits. Studies have shown that incorporating physical activity into your daily routine encourages healthy HDL cholesterol levels. This research has also revealed that regular exercise supports the maintenance, and may even offset the increase in unhealthy LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Just 30 minutes a session of moderately intense physical activity during the week can help you back on your path to wellness. Some healthy activities you can embrace include brisk walking, swimming, running, or cycling.
Kicking the habit tends to raise HDL cholesterol, and it improves your heart health in many other ways. Smoking elevates heart rate and blood pressure, plus it increases clotting and inflammation.
Weight loss is particularly important for people with metabolic syndrome – a constellation of risk factors, including low HDL cholesterol, a large waist circumference, and high triglycerides. Losing weight while reducing the number of calories you consume is essential.
In some people, chronic stress can sometimes raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. You can lower the effects of stress through exercise, as well as activities like yoga, deep breathing, and meditation.
The ideal diet to combat high cholesterol is one that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
Try the Mediterranean Diet
Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet may improve the function of HDL cholesterol in people at high risk for heart disease. It may also help to rid the coronary arteries of excess cholesterol and keep blood vessels open, reducing the risk of heart disease.
Follow a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet
There is also a possibility of lowering HDL cholesterol levels through a natural, plant-based diet. Studies have shown that a vegan or vegetarian diet that is high in fiber and low in saturated fat helps achieve or maintain normal, healthy cholesterol levels – something a meat-based diet may prevent.
Limit Saturated Fat
Limiting your consumption of saturated fat is particularly important for reducing LDL cholesterol. Saturated fats are found in red meat, particularly the fattier cuts, poultry with skin, lard and some vegetable oils, including coconut and palm oils. Eat more unsaturated healthy fats like olive oil instead. (See “Foods that Lower Cholesterol" below.)
Remove Trans Fat
It's best to try to avoid trans fats altogether. These unhealthy fats, which are formed when hydrogen gas is used to turn liquid vegetable oils into solids, are found in stick margarine; baked products, such as crackers, cookies, doughnuts, and bread; and foods fried in hydrogenated oils, like french fries and chicken.
Drink Alcohol In Moderation
Although small quantities of alcohol have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease in some people, heavy drinking damages the heart and liver and may contribute to high blood pressure and high triglycerides. According to U.S. dietary guidelines, women should drink no more than one drink a day; men should stick to two or fewer drinks daily. Or, better yet, avoid it entirely.
Foods That Lower Cholesterol
Fiber, particularly soluble fiber, helps to block cholesterol and fats from being absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract into the bloodstream. Studies suggest that people who increase their soluble fiber intake by 5 to 10 grams each day can lower their LDL cholesterol by about 5 percent. Good sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal and oat bran; legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils, and lima beans; and fruits like peaches, prunes, oranges, apples, and berries. Ironically, if you need fiber, a fiber supplement should be approached with some degree of cautious awareness. Although many people use them without issue, they have been known to cause some issues.
When used instead of saturated fats, unsaturated fats can help you lower your cholesterol. There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated, found in olive, canola, sunflower, and peanut oils, and polyunsaturated fats, which are in safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils. Nuts, olives, and avocados also provide these heart-healthy fats.
A plant-based diet is always best for lowering cholesterol, but fish – especially fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel – is a good source of polyunsaturated fats as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce triglyceride levels and may raise HDL cholesterol. If you do eat fish, make sure to pay careful attention to sourcing and be wary of toxic metal contamination.
Plant Stanols and Sterols
These substances are derived from soybean and tall pine-tree oils and added to some types of margarine. They work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol through the walls of the intestine, which lowers LDL cholesterol. Just two grams a day can reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 15 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Supplements That Lower Cholesterol
In addition to healthy eating, taking certain supplements may help reduce the need for statins or reduce the dose needed to achieve a healthy cholesterol reading. The following supplements show promise for lowering cholesterol naturally. (It's wise to discuss the use of supplements with your healthcare provider.)
A recent review of studies showed that glucomannan, a fiber-rich extract from the Asian konjac plant, can reduce LDL cholesterol by about 10 percent. Other research also showed lowering effects of glucomannan on total cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure.
Research suggests that this supplement, which is derived from the turmeric root, may promote normal triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels. Although more research is needed to determine the ideal dose, there's no harm in taking a supplement or adding more turmeric, which is responsible for the rich golden color of many Indian dishes, to your diet.
The evidence for taking a fish oil supplement, which typically contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, for high cholesterol, is not as strong as once thought. Although some studies support their use, others did not find a benefit. Eating fish itself is a different story. Still, studies suggest the supplements can help lower triglycerides and raise good HDL cholesterol. You may also be a candidate if you have heart failure.
An extract from this pungent Italian citrus fruit may help lower high total cholesterol levels. One study found that participants' cholesterol dropped from an average of 278 mg/dL of blood to 191, which is the healthy range. In the study, participants were able to reduce the dose of their statin medication. Bergamot may also raise HDL cholesterol levels.
There's some evidence that garlic supplements can reduce cholesterol modestly. A 2013 review of studies that included 39 previous studies showed that garlic reduced total cholesterol by 17 mg/dL and LDL cholesterol by about 9 mg/dL in people with total cholesterol levels about 200 mg/dL.
Normal Cholesterol Levels
To keep healthy and lower your risk for heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke, it's important to keep track of your cholesterol readings. Do you know your numbers?
Desirable cholesterol levels are as follows:
- Total cholesterol: Less than 170 mg/dL
- Low (“bad") LDL cholesterol: Less than 110 mg/dL
- High (“good") HDL cholesterol: 35 mg/dL or higher
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
With knowledge and diligence, you can effectively lower your cholesterol naturally. Together, you and your healthcare provider can plot a course of action to achieve and keep your cholesterol in the healthy zone.
- "September is National Cholesterol Education Month." Centers for Disease Control.
- Hernáez Á, et al. "Mediterranean Diet Improves High-Density Lipoprotein Function in High-Cardiovascular-Risk Individuals." Circulation. February 13, 2017.
- "Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion." Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020.
- "Your Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol With TLC." National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute December 2005.
- Ho H, et al. "A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials of the effect of konjac glucomannan, a viscous soluble fiber, on LDL cholesterol and the new lipid targets non-HDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition March 29, 2017.
- Arvill A, Bodin L. "Effect of short-term ingestion of konjac glucomannan on serum cholesterol in healthy men." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition May 1, 1995.
- Qin S, et al. "Efficacy and safety of turmeric and curcumin in lowering blood lipid levels in patients with cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials." Nutrition Journal October 11, 2017.
- Bradberry JC, et al. "Overview of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Therapies Pharmacy and Therapeutics." November 2013.
- Gliozzi M, et al. "Bergamot polyphenolic fraction enhances rosuvastatin-induced effect on LDL-cholesterol, LOX-1 expression and protein kinase B phosphorylation in patients with hyperlipidemia." International Journal of Cardiology November 10, 2013.
- Ried K, et al. "Effect of garlic on serum lipids: an updated meta-analysis." Nutrition Reviews May 1, 2013.
- Mohseni M, Vafa MR, Hajimiresmail SJ, Zarrati M, Rahimi Forushani A, Bitarafan V, Shidfar F. "Effects of coenzyme q10 supplementation on serum lipoproteins, plasma fibrinogen, and blood pressure in patients with hyperlipidemia and myocardial infarction." Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal October 5, 2014.
- Skarlovnik A, Janić M, Lunder M, Turk M, Šabovič M. "Coenzyme Q10 Supplementation Decreases Statin-Related Mild-to-Moderate Muscle Symptoms: A Randomized Clinical Study." Medical Science Monitor November 6, 2014.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.