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.