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.