Cholesterol levels should be measured at least once every five years in everyone over age 20. The screening test that is usually performed is a blood test called a lipid profile. Experts recommend that men ages 35 and older and women ages 45 and older be more frequently screened for lipid disorders.
The following will help reduce your cholesterol level:
1. Onion Extract A study recently presented to the Endocrine Society found that onion extract lowered total cholesterol in diabetic rats. A handful of other studies in the past few years also found onion to be effective in reducing both LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and blood sugar. The catch is that all of the research was done on rats—not people—and scientists are still unsure how well onion extract would work on human cholesterol. Deepika Gopal, MD, a cardiologist at The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano, believes both onion and garlic have cholesterol-lowering properties although she, like other scientists, isn’t sure why. “In the Indian culture, we believe spices have healing properties,” she says. “And onion and garlic are both very useful in lowering cholesterol, based on what we’ve seen in Indian cooking.” Bottom line, onion could help with your cholesterol (it certainly has helped a few rats), but don’t expect miracles. 2. Laxatives Laxatives won’t just get your bowels moving, some can also help lower cholesterol—but only if you take them the right way, Hazen says. Soluble fibers found in laxatives like Metamucil block the absorption of cholesterol into the blood. “The powder will semi-solidify like Jell-O that doesn’t set all the way,” says Hazen. As it makes its way through your stomach and intestines, that jelly-like substance picks up cholesterol, keeping it from getting absorbed. Since Metamucil grabs cholesterol from food, and not cholesterol your body produces, Hazen says it’s only effective when taken with a big meal. Besides blocking cholesterol absorption, Gopal says soluble fiber like Metamucil has secondary effects that can also lower cholesterol, like making you feel full longer so you cut down on fatty snacks.
Studies have found that eating tofu and other soy products in moderation reduces LDL cholesterol, and has either no effect or a positive effect on breast cancer tumors. Harvard Medical School doctors say eating about 10 ounces of tofu or 2½ cups of soymilk a day can reduce bad cholesterol by 5 to 6%. Tofu also contains phytosterols and is a low-cholesterol protein, so replacing meat with tofu at least one night a week cuts the amount of cholesterol in your diet, says Nivee Amin, MD, a cardiologist at the Perelman Heart Institute of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
4. Cholesterol The plant version of cholesterol, called phytosterols, actually improves your cholesterol levels by substituting the cholesterol in your body, according to Hazen. Phytosterols act similarly to soluble fibers like Metamucil. “They bind up some of the cholesterol in the food that you eat so it’s metabolized by the body,” says Amin. Also like Metamucil, phytosterol supplements are best taken with food. Hazen recommends trying a phytosterol spread, similar to butter or margarine. You can also take phytosterols like a vitamin or add them to your diet through foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains like oatmeal.
A daily glass of red wine isn’t going to do anything for your LDL. However, it has been found to increase levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind). “You can compare HDL to Liquid Draino,” says Gopal. “It actually cleans out your arteries. So the higher your HDL, the better your total cholesterol.” But this doesn’t mean you can grab a bottle of wine and go to town. Drinking alcohol in excess is still bad for you, and “excess” might be less than you think. The Mayo Clinic recommends no more than one drink a day for women and for men older than 65. Men under 65 can have two drinks a day. But if you don’t drink, there’s certainly no reason to start now. “I would always caution people about alcohol because it has side effects,” says Amin. “In some people it can worsen heart failure; in others it can worsen liver disease.” But if you already drink every day, she recommends you follow the guidelines and talk to your doctor.
6. Pectin The bitter white rind on oranges contains pectin, a fiber that can also lower LDL cholesterol by 7% to 10%, according to a study from doctors in the Netherlands. It works like phytosterols and Metamucil to bind up cholesterol in your diet before it gets absorbed. Luckily for us, pectin can also be found in apples—which are way tastier than orange pulp. Both apple and citrus pectin are also available as a supplement at most drugstores.
7. Sleep A study from the Nihon University School of Medicine in Japan found that for women not getting enough sleep (less than five hours) and getting too much sleep (more than eight hours) both correlated to higher levels of bad and lower levels of good cholesterol. “Our cholesterol metabolism occurs at night,” says Amin. “And so that’s why a lot of times the medications we take for cholesterol are prescribed to be taken at bedtime.” Losing sleep or getting too much sleep both disrupt your body’s processing of the fats and sugars you ate throughout the day. But Amin says getting enough sleep also has a secondary effect on cholesterol. “If you’re sleeping enough you have the energy to do the sort of things that allow you to maintain a healthy lifestyle, like choosing healthy foods and exercising regularly.”
A bergamot is like a cross between an orange and a lemon, and though it just recently hit the cholesterol-lowering market as a supplement, you’ve likely encountered it in other forms: Essential oil from Bergamot rinds gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive taste and is also used in many perfumes. But instead of pectin being this fruit’s cholesterol-fighting superpower, researchers believe a high concentration of five flavonoids makes it an effective treatment. Two of the flavonoids (also in grapefruit) have been found to inhibit LDL cholesterol from depositing plaque in the arteries. And two others, called melitidine and brutieridine, exhibit statin-like properties. Research is just preliminary, but so far bergamot has proven to reduce LDL cholesterol by about 27% and also raise HDL cholesterol.