Best for: Lowering Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a numbers game. The higher the amount of cholesterol in your blood, the higher your risk of heart damage. Steering clear of cholesterol-rich foods like whole-milk ice cream and butter is a place to start, but genes partly determine how deftly your body juggles its cholesterol. Whether your diet or your parents are working against you, psyllium supplements can help you slash cholesterol levels.
How it works
Psyllium is a soluble fiber made from the husks of psyllium seeds. Inside the gut, it gloms onto bile acids, which are made with cholesterol. After psyllium latches onto the bile, the entire compound is eliminated. When the gut realizes it's fresh out of bile, it grabs cholesterol out of the blood to make more- and cholesterol levels take a nosedive. Recently, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a meta-analysis of eight studies comparing psyllium's cholesterol-lowering skills with the ability of a placebo. Researchers found that 10.2 g of psyllium per day lowered bad (LDL) cholesterol by an impressive 7 percent. Among supplements studied for lowering cholesterol, psyllium is on the best footing, says Deepak Bhatt, M.D., a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. "Fiber supplements have low potential for harm and high potential for benefits."
Who it can help
Psyllium may also be a boon to folks taking conventional heart medicines. In a study published in 2005 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers divided people with high cholesterol into two groups. One set saw a 29 percent drop in their LDL cholesterol levels on 10 milligrams of Zocor, a popular statin. But the second crowd used a combo of Zocor (10 mg) and psyllium (15 g) and saw their LDL levels plummet by 36 percent—the equivalent of taking twice as much Zocor.
Look for psyllium capsules in the supplement aisle or in drinkable forms such as Metamucil and Serutan.
10 g a day, taken with meals, when bile acids are abundant. Psyllium has an excellent safety record, but it does bulk up the stool, so wash it down with at least 8 ounces of water.
Plant Stanol & Sterol Esters
Plant stanols and sterols-both plant membranes- fight high cholesterol with a two-pronged approach. First, they monkey with the body's ability to absorb the fatty stuff from food. Second, they help escort cholesterol found in biological juices out of the body. More than a dozen studies show the kissing cousins can lower LDL cholesterol by as much as 15 percent. Thanks to a long history and a spotless safety record, Gardner gives them the thumbs-up. "Plant sterols clearly lower cholesterol," he says.
They are available as supplements and are mixed with vegetable oil for use in functional foods such as spreads, salad dressings, and low-fat yogurt. Popular products include Take Control, a margarine spread, and its competitor Benecol.
1.3 g of plant sterols per day—the equivalent of 1 to 2 tablespoons of Take Control. Or aim for 3.4 g of plant stanol esters, found in four tablespoons of Benecol. When it comes to other functional foods and supplements, look to the label for guidance.