Plant Sterols: Is This Right For You?

Green sprout from pills

Plant sterols, or phytosterols, are naturally occurring plant molecules that are very similar to cholesterol. In the intestines, plant sterols interfere with cholesterol absorption. Researchers have found that when plant sterols are ingested, they are not well absorbed by the body but latch on to cholesterol receptors in your intestines. As a result, less cholesterol is able to pass from your intestines into your bloodstream, so cholesterol levels in the blood are lowered. That cholesterol is instead excreted in your feces. Plant sterols are naturally occurring in many foods and some foods are fortified to include more plant sterols. They are also available in supplement form.

Do They Really Work?
An influential study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1995 reported that 2 grams of plant sterols a day for one year lowered LDL cholesterol by 14% and total cholesterol by 10%. A subsequent meta-analysis found that the consumption of an average of 2 grams per day of plant sterols or stanols lowered serum LDL cholesterol by 9-14%. This correlates to a reduction in the risk of heart disease by about 25%.

Are They Safe?
Plant sterols are safe for most populations when used in recommended doses. Those who have asthma or other respiratory diseases should be careful, because many supplements are made from soy, and so dust  can trigger outbreaks.

Those allergic to soy or pine products should avoid plant sterol supplements for find a supplement made from a plant that they are not allergic to.

Should I Take Plant Sterols?
The American Heart Association recommends plant sterols for adults with high total or LDL cholesterol, or those who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. Plant sterols should be used in addition to lifestyle management strategies, including high-fiber diet and exercise. The National Institutes of Health’s most recent cholesterol treatment guidelines recommend the use of 2 grams a day of plant sterols or stanols for enhancing LDL-lowering treatment plans.

Healthy foods that contain plant sterols include nuts, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. There are also heart-healthy spreads that are fortified with plant sterols. You can also get plant sterols in supplement form. The recommended dose is 2000 mg/day. However, before taking a plant sterol or stanol supplement, make sure to talk with your doctor.

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