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Will You Lower Your Cholesterol With Milk Thistle?

MIlk thistle extract can lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. It blocks the same enzyme as statins.
Will You Lower Your Cholesterol With Milk Thistle?
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Is your cholesterol high? If you have a family history of high cholesterol, particularly if you had parents or siblings who died of heart disease, your doctor will do as much as possible to help you control this blood fat. Frequently, the physician’s first choice is to prescribe a statin, and that works well for many people. Others, however, notice unpleasant side effects from these drugs. As a result, they seek alternatives. Plant products such as milk thistle may offer unexpected help in this regard.

Lowering Cholesterol With Milk Thistle: 

Q. My husband and I suffered from terrible muscle cramps while taking statins to lower cholesterol. I have a family history of high cholesterol, so when I read that milk thistle prevents the liver from making cholesterol, I tried it. It worked so well my doctor was shocked! My cholesterol is now well under control and I have not had any more muscle cramping.

A. We were surprised to learn that silymarin, the active ingredient in the botanical medicine milk thistle, has been studied as a lipid-lowering agent. One systematic review found that this natural product can contribute to lowering total cholesterol, LDL-C and triglycerides. It also raised the so-called good HDL cholesterol (Phytotherapy Research, April, 2019). Moreover, silymarin helps to protect the liver (Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity, Oct. 1, 2019).

Silymarin works in part by inhibiting the same enzyme that statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs block. Side effects may include stomachache and diarrhea. Some people have reported headache or itching. Those who are allergic to ragweed may be more likely to have trouble with milk thistle. 

Other Plant Products That Lower Cholesterol:

You might be surprised to learn that a common dietary supplement, psyllium, lowers cholesterol effectively (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov. 1, 2018). Although most people think of this plant product (the main ingredient in Metamucil) as preventing constipation, those who took it daily for at least three weeks had lower cholesterol. Some scientists have found that this soluble fiber can enhance low-dose statin therapy (American Journal of Cardiology, Oct. 1, 2018).

Beta-glucans from oats or barley also lower cholesterol (British Journal of Nutrition, Oct. 2016; European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov. 2016). You can learn more about lowering cholesterol with medications and nondrug approaches in our eGuide to Cholesterol Control & Heart Health.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Mohammadi H et al, "Effects of silymarin supplementation on blood lipids: A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials." Phytotherapy Research, April, 2019. DOI: 10.1002/ptr.6287
  • Francini-Pesenti F et al, "Potential role of phytochemicals in metabolic syndrome prevention and therapy." Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity, Oct. 1, 2019. DOI: 10.2147/DMSO.S214550
  • Jovanovski E et al, "Effect of psyllium (Plantago ovata) fiber on LDL cholesterol and alternative lipid targets, non-HDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov. 1, 2018. DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy115
  • Brum J et al, "Meta-analysis of usefulness of psyllium fiber as adjuvant antilipid therapy to enhance cholesterol lowering efficacy of statins." American Journal of Cardiology, Oct. 1, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.amjcard.2018.06.040
  • Ho HVT et al, "The effect of oat β-glucan on LDL-cholesterol, non-HDL-cholesterol and apoB for CVD risk reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised-controlled trials." British Journal of Nutrition, Oct. 2016. DOI: 10.1017/S000711451600341X
  • Ho HVT et al, "A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials of the effect of barley β-glucan on LDL-C, non-HDL-C and apoB for cardiovascular disease risk reduction." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov. 2016. DOI: 10.1038/ejcn.2016.89
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