As we age, doctors may recommend more vitamins and minerals to get the nutrients you may be lacking or to improve overall health. In fact, 82% of people ages 55 to 64 and 88% of those 65 and older take vitamins or supplements, according to the AARP.
But when it comes to lowering cholesterol levels, some natural supplements you may be more familiar with – such as niacin, garlic and green tea – may not be as effective compared to other medications, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found that low-dose statins – prescription medications used to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad cholesterol” – were more effective at lowering cholesterol than other supplements tested in the study.
“This study provides evidence to patients regarding the efficacy, or lack thereof, when they consider using supplements to treat high cholesterol,” study author Luke Laffin, MD, with the Cleveland Clinic’s Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute, told Seasons.
Laffin and his colleagues analyzed 190 adults between the ages of 40 and 75. Some participants were given 5 mg of rosuvastatin – a low-dose statin sold under the brand Crestor – for 28 days. Other participants were given different supplements, including fish oil, turmeric, red yeast rice, cinnamon, garlic and plant sterols for the same number of days.
They found participants who took the statin lowered LDL cholesterol by almost 38%—greater than the placebo and any of the six supplements analyzed in the study. In addition, none of the supplements demonstrated a significant decrease in LDL cholesterol compared with the placebo, the authors noted.
Why might statins be more effective than supplements at reducing cholesterol levels?
When cholesterol levels are too high for long periods of time, cholesterol can form hard deposits on the lining of your arteries, increasing your risk for blood clots, stroke and heart attack, said Jeff Gladd, MD, a practicing integrative medicine physician and the chief medical officer at Fullscript.
However, statins work by slowing down the production of cholesterol and blocking the pathway for synthesizing cholesterol in the liver. It can do this because statins specifically target an enzyme in the body that makes LDL cholesterol.
“It would make sense that a medication that targets an enzyme that makes LDL would lower your LDL levels,” Jennifer Wong, MD, a cardiologist at California-based MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute, told Seasons. “Whereas all those other supplements, while there may have been some trials of cardiovascular benefit, they have not previously been shown to lower LDL levels.”
Furthermore, Gladd said even though supplements can play an important role in your treatment plan, they do not seem to be powerful enough to produce the same results as many prescription medications.
“Like diet and exercise, supplements can be used to complement and potentially enhance the effectiveness of your prescribed treatment plan,” he said.
Are there still health benefits to taking natural supplements?
Experts say just because natural supplements did not show as much effectiveness in reducing cholesterol, it doesn’t mean these supplements can’t reduce cholesterol levels at all.
“It can take significantly longer to see results when taking supplements versus taking statin drugs,” Gladd said. “It’s common to experience lipid-lowering effects of statins within weeks, whereas supplements can take months to produce similar results.”
He added some of the supplements featured in the study can offer other health benefits. For example, fish oil supplements have been shown to reduce triglyceride levels and may improve symptoms related to rheumatoid arthritis. Other studies show that red yeast rice can reduce LDL and total cholesterol levels when taken for at least 12 weeks.
Wong added that because these supplements have not been proven to be harmful, people should not make any changes to the supplements they’re currently taking.
“In terms of the supplements … certainly there are smaller trials and stories of it being helpful,” Wong said. “It may not be targeting LDL but it may have cardiovascular benefits, but this study does not speak to that in any way.”
What’s the reason for the opposition to statins?
According to experts, people may prefer alternatives to statins for many reasons:
- Some people may experience side effects, such as headaches, nausea, muscle and joint pain, and more serious side effects in rare occasions.
- In many cases, patients may want to try nonpharmaceutical methods first.
- Some patients prefer to manage cholesterol levels through eating a healthy diet, staying active and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Statins require a prescription and may cost more compared to other methods.
What does this mean for you?
If you or a loved one are concerned about cholesterol levels, Gladd and Wong recommend reaching out to your health care provider to determine your risk profile for high cholesterol. Your doctor may test to determine if your cholesterol levels are out of a normal range. From there, they may recommend a statin in combination with dietary supplements and lifestyle or diet modifications.
It’s important to note that caregivers and loved ones should talk to their practitioner before taking any dietary supplements or making any significant changes to their diet or exercise routine.
“If you already take supplements, it’s important to discuss them with your practitioner, as some supplement ingredients can interfere with statin drugs,” Gladd said.