- Sterols and Cholesterol
- Sterols vs Statins
- Sterols and Prostate Health
- How to Boost Your Sterol Intake
Beta-sitosterol (one of a variety of plant sterol esters, or simply plant sterols) is a naturally occurring substance found in many whole foods, including vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Plant sterols are best known for their ability to naturally lower cholesterol. Because of this key benefit, food manufacturers have started adding sterols to many processed foods like margarine and orange juice (so that they can be marketed as “cholesterol-lowering foods”).
But that’s not all that plant sterols do.
They have been used to prevent and treat gallstones, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, allergies, fibromyalgia, asthma, lupus, bronchitis, chronic fatigue, and menopausal symptoms.
But other than reducing cholesterol, where plant sterols show most promise is as a natural remedy for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH, or enlarged prostate). Let’s first look at how sterols improve cholesterol levels.
Sterols and Cholesterol
Special carriers in the blood, called lipoproteins, transport cholesterol to and from cells.
There are a few types of cholesterol carriers in the body. Two of the main ones are high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
HDL is considered beneficial and health promoting because it carries excess cholesterol away from the arteries and to the liver, where it is then eliminated from the body. High levels of HDL are associated with significantly lower risk of heart disease.
LDL, on the other hand, is considered harmful in excess. You do need some LDL, but if you have too much in your blood, it can stick to the walls of your arteries and clog them up with plaque. Artery-clogging plaque can eventually lead to heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
Plants sterols work by blocking the body’s absorption of cholesterol. They have a similar molecular structure to cholesterol, so when they travel through the digestive tract, they get in the way of actual cholesterol and prevent it from getting absorbed into the bloodstream. So instead of potentially clogging arteries, the cholesterol leaves the body as waste.
Even better, plant sterols seem to only have this effect on LDL. HDL remains largely untouched.
Research is so convincing on the effectiveness of sterols in reducing LDL that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually allows manufacturers to make health claims about this very benefit on product labels. Here’s a snippet of some of the impressive research:
In one study, eight weeks of drinking a sterol-fortified orange juice led to significantly lower total LDL cholesterol, compared to placebo. Those drinking the OJ with sterols also experienced reductions in C-reactive protein—a key marker of inflammation and risk factor for heart disease.
Another study, that investigated the efficacy of plant sterols in capsule form, found that, compared to placebo, participants taking the supplement had a 7% reduction in LDL by week three. Beneficial HDL increased by 9% by week three. Researchers concluded, “plant sterol ester capsule is effective in improving lipid profiles among hypercholesterolemic subjects…at the minimum dosage recommended by FDA. The significant improved lipid profiles were reached after three weeks of administration.”
Sterols vs Statins
Some research has even indicated that sterols may be just as effective as controversial statin drugs for decreasing cholesterol. Forty-six people were randomly assigned to follow either a low-fat diet (control), a low-fat diet plus a statin, or a diet high in plant sterols.
The control group, the statin group, and the plant sterol group had mean reductions in LDL of 8 percent, 30.9 percent, and 28.6 percent, respectively. In conclusion, researchers wrote that there were “no significant differences in efficacy between the statin and dietary portfolio treatments.”
For patients with moderately high LDL, why take side effect-ridden statins when you may be able to achieve the same result with safer sterols?
Sterols and Prostate Health
Notable research also exists detailing sterols’ effects on BPH. This condition is marked by prostate enlargement that causes problems urinating (trouble starting to urinate, having to strain while urinating, weak urine stream, “dribbling,” etc.)
Plant sterols have been shown to bind to the prostate to help reduce inflammation associated with this condition. Symptom relief has also been achieved with sterol supplementation.
One meta-analysis looked at four trials that included 519 men with BPH. Compared with placebo, “beta-sitosterol improved urinary symptom scores and urine flow measures.”
Another study sought to determine the long-term effects of plant sterols for BPH. Of the 117 men who were eligible for this analysis, 38 continued using the supplement for 18 months, and 41 chose not to. Those 41 men ended up with worsening symptom scores, and those who chose to keep taking the sterols enjoyed continued symptom relief over the 18-month period.
How to Boost Your Sterol Intake
One way to boost your intake of sterols is to simply include a wide variety of nutritious whole foods in your diet. Some of the best sources include seeds (such as sesame), nuts (particularly pistachio and almonds), legumes like peanuts, wheat bran and germ, and veggies such as Brussels sprouts.
As mentioned earlier, food companies have also started adding sterols to products such as vegetable oil, margarine, mayonnaise, orange juice, cereals, and snack bars. Keep in mind, these are all highly processed foods that are full of sugar, hydrogenated oils, and preservatives—all of which cancel out any potential benefit you may have gotten from the added sterols.
Furthermore, you would need to eat a lot of sterol-rich foods (plant-based and processed) to achieve any notable therapeutic benefit. For this reason, taking a sterol supplement is the most efficient way to get the amount of plant sterols necessary to reduce cholesterol and relieve prostate-related symptoms.
Fortunately, sterol supplements are widely available online and at most health food stores and pharmacies. Though widely considered extremely safe to use by most people, sterols may cause diarrhea in some people. In general, the recommended dosage is 1-2 grams daily, but take as directed.
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