Cholesterol does a lot right for your body—digests fat, synthesizes vitamin D, maintains cell membranes, and produces sex hormones—but it’s better known for what it does wrong, which is clog arteries and set the stage for heart attacks and strokes. And too many Americans—more than 100 million—have elevated blood levels of cholesterol, which means half the adult population is at risk for developing cardiovascular disease. You, too, could be in that risk pool, especially if you have a family history of high cholesterol, heart disease, or stroke, or if your cholesterol rises as you age. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to reduce that risk, including changing your diet, exercising more, and taking supplements. For many people, these natural remedies are just as effective at improving cholesterol levels as taking medications, says Mimi Guarneri, M.D., medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, Calif. Not all the changes you make will automatically lower your cholesterol. Some things, says Guarneri, are beyond your control. “As you age, your liver starts producing more cholesterol in an effort to boost declining levels of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone,” she points out. “That’s why women’s cholesterol levels may shoot up after menopause.” Still, it pays to change the factors you can control.
Foods to eat
“Start with your diet,” advises Guarneri. “Food is still your best medicine when it comes to lowering cholesterol and preventing plaque buildup.” To maximize the nutrients in your diet, fill up on fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains such as bulgur, brown rice, and multigrain products. Also choose vegetarian sources of protein such as edamame, lentils, and beans, and nonfat milk, cheese, and other dairy products. If you eat fish, choose those high in omega-3s, such as wild salmon, wild trout, and sardines. In a 2006 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association, evidence from several epidemiological studies clearly showed that eating fish packed with omega-3 fatty acids once or twice a week can decrease your risk of dying from a heart attack by up to 36 percent. When cooking, replace butter with olive oil, canola oil, and nut oils that are rich in monounsaturated fats, the type of fat that helps lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. (For the difference between LDL and HDL, see “How Lipoproteins Work, below”) Be sure your diet includes soluble fiber, which blocks the absorption of dietary cholesterol from the intestine so that it’s excreted from the body. “Apples and strawberries, oats and barley, and black beans and lentils are all rich in soluble fiber,” says Wahida Karmally, Dr.P.H., R.D., director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University, who also advocates a vegetarian diet—or two or three vegetarian meals a week—for anyone trying to keep cholesterol levels in check. Studies have also shown that nuts like almonds and walnuts can significantly reduce LDL cholesterol.