Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that the liver produces. It is also present in animal-based foods. Cholesterol supports many essential bodily functions, but high levels can lead to health issues.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), unhealthful lifestyle choices are the leading cause of high cholesterol. However, genetics, certain medical conditions, and medications can also contribute to high cholesterol.
Having high cholesterol does not cause symptoms, but it can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Doctors can prescribe statins to help lower a person's cholesterol levels, but these medications can cause side effects, such as headaches, muscle cramps, and nausea.
In this article, we explore some natural ways to lower cholesterol without medication. We also discuss what cholesterol is and why high levels can be harmful.
Trans unsaturated fatty acids, which people commonly refer to as trans fats, are unsaturated vegetable fats that have undergone an industrial process called hydrogenation, which makes them solid at room temperature. Food manufacturers use trans fats because they are relatively inexpensive and long-lasting.
Sources of trans fats include:
- vegetable shortening
- partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
- fried foods
- certain processed and prepackaged foods
Bacteria in the stomachs of cows, sheep, and goats produce natural trans fats. Cheese, milk, and other dairy products may contain modest amounts of natural trans fats.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), consuming trans fats can negatively affect a person's health in two different ways:
- they can raise blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or "bad cholesterol"
- they can reduce blood levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or "good cholesterol"
LDL cholesterol can accumulate in the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. HDL cholesterol helps remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream.
According to a 2019 review, low levels of HDL cholesterol are common in people with type 2 diabetes, which increases their risk of heart disease. The authors suggest that treatment should focus on lowering LDL cholesterol levels to reduce this risk.
In a 2017 study, researchers used cell cultures to show that a trans fat called elaidic acid had toxic effects in neuron-like cells. Elaidic acid led to cell death and increased markers of oxidative stress.
Saturated fats generally stay solid at room temperature whereas unsaturated fats are usually liquid.
Dietary sources of saturated fats include:
- red meat
- chicken with the skin on
- cheese and other dairy products
- cooking oils, such as palm oil and coconut oil
The AHA recommend that saturated fat should only represent about 5–6% of a person's daily calorie intake.
A diet high in saturated fats may raise a person's LDL cholesterol levels. Excess LDL cholesterol can accumulate and form hard deposits in the arteries, which may lead to a condition called atherosclerosis.
A 2018 study examined how different dietary fats affected blood levels of cholesterol. The 4-week study involved 96 healthy adults who consumed 50 grams (g) daily of either:
- extra virgin coconut oil
- extra virgin olive oil
Coconut oil and butter predominately contain saturated fat, whereas olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat.
According to the results, the participants who consumed butter had significantly higher levels of LDL cholesterol than those in the coconut oil and olive oil groups.
The study also showed that different types of saturated fat can vary in their effects on cholesterol levels. For example, coconut oil significantly increased the participants' levels of HDL cholesterol whereas butter significantly raised LDL cholesterol levels.
Vegetables, nuts, and fish are rich in monounsaturated fats. These fats take the form of liquids at room temperature.
Good sources of monounsaturated fats include:
- nuts, such as almonds, peanuts, and Brazil nuts
- vegetable oils, such as olive, peanut, sesame, and sunflower oils
In a 2019 study involving 119 adults with a high waist circumference, consuming a diet high in a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid resulted in lower LDL and total cholesterol levels than a diet that was higher in saturated fats and lower in monounsaturated fats. Oleic acid had no effect on the levels of triglycerides or HDL cholesterol in the blood of the participants.
Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Consuming these fats in moderation can reduce LDL cholesterol without affecting HDL cholesterol levels.
Dietary sources of polyunsaturated fats include:
- fish, such as salmon, tuna, and trout
- plant oils, such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils
A 2017 review found evidence suggesting that diets rich in polyunsaturated fats from fish oil may prevent some mechanisms of arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat, and promote overall heart health.
It is important to balance the intake of omega-6 fatty acids with that of omega-3 fatty acids. Consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids may cause adverse health effects.
Soluble fiber absorbs water to create a thick, gel-like paste in a person's digestive tract. Soluble fiber not only supports digestive health but also lowers levels of LDL cholesterol and promotes overall heart health.
A 2017 study investigated the benefits of a high-fiber diet in 69 Asian Indians with higher-than-normal cholesterol levels. The participants who consumed 70 g per day of soluble fiber had lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels than those who ate their usual diet.
Foods rich in soluble fiber include:
- whole grains, such as oatmeal and brown rice
Soluble fiber lowers LDL cholesterol levels but does not affect HDL cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Consuming too much soluble fiber can lead to constipation, bloating, and stomach pain. People should try to increase their soluble fiber intake gradually over time.
Studies show that regular exercise can help lower bad cholesterol levels and raise good cholesterol levels.
For example, the results of a 2019 study involving 425 older adults showed that moderate and vigorous physical activity lowered blood pressure, reduced blood sugar levels, and increased HDL cholesterol levels.
In a 2015 study involving 40 adult women, participants who followed a 12-week resistance training program had reduced total cholesterol and increased HDL cholesterol levels compared with those who did not follow the program.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults do at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week for substantial health benefits. A person can spread this activity throughout the week.
People new to exercise may want to start with lower intensity activities and gradually build the intensity of their workouts. Performing high-intensity exercises without proper training or supervision can lead to injuries.
People can incorporate regular exercise into their lives by walking, jogging, cycling, or doing resistance exercises with light weights.
People with cardiovascular disease or other heart problems should consult a doctor before participating in intense physical activities.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is present in every cell in the body. Although having too much cholesterol can increase the risk of adverse health effects, the body needs cholesterol to build cell membranes and to produce:
The liver naturally produces all of the cholesterol that the body needs. However, certain foods contain cholesterol, and other foods can trigger the liver to produce more cholesterol.
High levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to fatty deposits building up on the walls of arteries, which increases a person's risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
HDL cholesterol collects LDL cholesterol and other fats from the arteries and transports them back to the liver. The liver disposes of excess cholesterol by converting it into a digestive fluid called bile.
Although people should aim to have more HDL cholesterol than LDL cholesterol, the NHLBI recommend that adults keep their blood levels of total cholesterol below 200 milligrams per deciliter.
Cholesterol supports many essential bodily functions, such as cell membrane formation and hormone production. However, having high levels of LDL cholesterol can increase a person's risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
People can naturally lower their cholesterol levels through dietary and lifestyle changes. Replacing trans fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower levels of LDL cholesterol and raise levels of HDL cholesterol.
Other ways to naturally lower cholesterol include eating more soluble fiber and exercising regularly.