Omega-3s and Phytosterols: A Promising Pair for Heart Disease Protection

Increasingly popular omega-3 fatty acids—found in sources like fish—and plant extracts known as phytosterols—which occur naturally in sources like vegetable oils, whole grains, nuts, and legumes—are known to have beneficial effects on fats (lipids) in the blood that affect heart health, such as cholesterol and triglycerides. Now a new study suggests that when taken in combination, they may have even more powerful effects.

Lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol are important steps toward reducing health risks. High total and LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides are associated with an increased cardiovascular disease risk. On the other hand, a high level of HDL cholesterol protects against cardiovascular disease. Lifestyle changes and medication can improve a person’s lipid profile and reduce risks. Researchers are finding that using phytosterols and omega-3 fatty acids may be another way to help lower cholesterol.

Even better together

Phytosterols may have beneficial effects on health including cholesterol reduction. Fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, is also known to increase HDL cholesterol levels and lower triglycerides. The authors of the current study investigated whether or not using phytosterols in combination with omega-3 fatty acids might have even greater effect on lowering lipids.

For three weeks, 60 people between ages 35 and 70 ate their regular diets and were randomly assigned to receive one of the following: placebo (sunflower oil) capsules alone or in combination with a spread containing 2 grams per day of phytosterols, or capsules containing 1.4 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) alone or in combination with 25 grams per day of the phytosterol enriched spread.

The combination of omega-3 fatty acids and phytosterols reduced total cholesterol by 13.3% and LDL cholesterol by 12.5%. HDL cholesterol increased by 7.1% in the group receiving omega-3s alone and by 8.6% in the combination group. Triglycerides were also lowered in the omega-3s group by 22.3% and in the combination group by 25.9%.

Tips to lower cholesterol

Here are a few tips for aiming for heart-healthy lipid levels:

• Eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.

• Maintain a healthy weight.

• Exercise regularly.

• A glass of red wine at dinner may help raise “good” cholesterol.

Sometimes lifestyle changes alone are not enough to help improve lipid levels and medication is necessary. This is particularly true for people with other risk factors for heart disease such as diabetes or high blood pressure. If you have high cholesterol see a doctor to find out what steps you should take in order to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Jane Hart, MD

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