Rich in soluble fiber, psyllium seeds and their husks have long been enlisted to ease constipation and digestive system upset. During the Middle Ages, Arab physicians regularly recommended a formula for constipation that included psyllium as a principal ingredient. Today, a number of studies suggest that psyllium may also be effective in lowering cholesterol, promoting weight loss (it makes you feel full), and aiding numerous other conditions.
Policosanol is a unique natural product derived from sugar cane wax and beeswax: It has proved effective at reducing cholesterol levels and for some individuals may be a reasonable natural alternative to the commonly prescribed “statin-type” cholesterol-lowering drugs.
This grand perennial with its purplish flower head is native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Canary Islands. In the days of ancient Rome and Greece, Europeans began to cultivate artichoke as well. It is now grown commercially in North Africa. Although the flesh of the spike-tipped petals, called “bracts,” and the heart of the flower head are eaten as a delicacy, it is the plant’s large, lobed leaves and their extracts that are used medicinally.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), a common shrub-like perennial, bears bright yellow flowers that contain numerous therapeutic substances when dried. Europeans have used the herb for centuries to calm jangled nerves and heal wounds, among other ills. And so it’s not surprising that North Americans have recently embraced its use as a treatment for depression and conditions associated with it.
Red yeast rice, an Asian dietary staple made by fermenting red yeast (Monascus purpureus) on rice, is rapidly gaining recognition as a cholesterol-lowering agent in the United States. Supplements are now available here that contain an extract imported from China, where a particular strain of M. purpureus is grown on rice under careful fermentation conditions. This yields specific amounts of statins–the compounds largely held responsible for reducing cholesterol levels. In contrast, the red yeast rice long used in Asia to flavor, preserve, and color food, and to make rice wine, contains negligible amounts of statins.
Also known as vitamin B5, pantothenic acid is essential for a number of basic bodily functions–from growth to reproduction. It participates in the continual breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from food, converting them into compounds the body can use. This vitamin also produces numerous enzymes and helps maintain precise communication between the central nervous system and the brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one of four basic types of fat that the body derives from food. (Cholesterol, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat are the others.) All polyunsaturated fats, including the omega-3s, are increasingly recognized as important to human health.
Eating too many foods rich in saturated fats has been associated with the development of degenerative diseases, including heart disease and even cancer. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, however, are actually good for you. Omega-3s (found primarily in cold-water fish) fall into this category, along with omega-6s, another type of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in grains, most plant-based oils, poultry, and eggs. (For more information, see our WholeHealth Chicago entry on Omega-6 Fatty Acids.)
Also known as vitamin B3, niacin has earned a reputation (in supplement form) as a natural cholesterol-lowering agent that often rivals prescription drugs in mild to moderate cases. It may also help to prevent or treat a number of other disorders, from arthritis and depression to diabetes. Three forms of niacin supplements–each with a specific therapeutic role–are commercially available: nicotinic acid (also called nicotinate), niacinamide and inositol hexaniacinate, a compound of niacin and inositol (another B-family vitamin).
From the resin of the mukul myrrh tree (Commiphora mukul) comes a remedy–gugulipid–that holds promise for lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels as effectively as certain prescription medications. Native to India, this tree is closely related to the plant that provides the fragrant myrrh described in the Bible.
Along with its well-earned reputation for discouraging friends and repelling potential lovers, this powerful herb has a storied culinary and medical history. Egyptian pyramid builders took it for strength and endurance. Medieval healers recommended it as protection against supernatural forces–vampires in particular. The French scientist Louis Pasteur investigated its antibacterial properties, and doctors in the two World Wars treated battle wounds with garlic juice when other drugs were unavailable. Most recently, garlic has been touted for heart health as well.
Most foods contain a mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber, which together make up the dietary fiber family. Compounds that dissolve or swell when put into water are called soluble fibers and include pectins, gums, mucilages, and some hemicelluloses. These compounds are found inside and around plant cells and exist as gum arabic, guar gum, locust bean gum, and pectins. Soluble fiber is found in cereals and a variety of foods such as salad dressings, jams, and jellies.
Allium compounds are derived from Allium sativum, or garlic, which is one of the most widely studied medicinal plants. The fresh garlic bulb is usually dried, crushed into a powder, and then compressed to produce a tablet. The tablet form is the most commonly used commercial preparation of garlic. Raw whole cloves have similar effects.
We’re constantly hearing about how heart disease is the nation’s “number 1 killer.” Yet if I took a survey of my patients, I’m sure most of them would say they’re more worried about cancer than having a heart attack. Especially my female patients. So when the subject comes up, I take the time to point out that heart disease kills about 500,000 women each year–more than 10 times the number who die of breast cancer–and half those deaths are from heart attacks. To which I quickly add there are more effective strategies for preventing a heart attack than there are for preventing any other chronic disease.
Some cardiologists have philosophized about Western civilization’s love-hate relationship with cholesterol. For what’s basically a form of grease, it’s certainly more valuable than gold. After all, to surgically by-pass a pea-sized morsel of cholesterol will set your insurance company back about $50K. In fact, this tiny amount of cholesterol lodged in just the right place can kill you with a heart attack or paralyze you with a stroke. So on one hand, here’s the food industry developing more imaginative ways to feed us salted fat, and on the other, the pharmaceutical industry creating cholesterol-lowering medications we’re supposed to gobble up like M and M’s.
Click here for the Health Tip link. When drug research like the recent Crestor study makes headlines in the Chicago Sun-Times and the national media, I know I’ll be fielding questions from patients. The very day after the Crestor study, in fact, the perky Crestor drug reps arrived in my office, barely able to contain […]
Posted 10/28/2008 You could see smoke pouring from the ears of some doctors, myself included, at information released earlier this year. A combination of junk science, the drug industry, FDA, and American Heart Association (AHA) had convinced us that lowering cholesterol actually prevented heart disease. It turns out we’d all been conned. And it’s interesting […]