Question: I have elevated cholesterol, and my doctor wants me to take a drug called statin. I am shy of taking medicines for it. My friend told me to take a natural product over the counter. Also, since I have been researching this on the internet, I got email promotions about treating high cholesterol levels by taking natural products. Are supplements safe and effective? — Jena, of Lima.
This a particularly good question. A lot of folks take natural products these days.
High cholesterol causes hardening of the arteries and folks consequently develop high blood pressure. Hardening of the arteries reduces blood supply to different organs and may cause kidney failure, heart attack or a stroke. Alternate medicines are available to reduce cholesterol levels than statins.
Newer medicines are available now that reverse some of the changes produced by high cholesterol, and you do not have to take statins. Some of them may require an injection every few weeks. The changes produced by high cholesterol are preventable.
Medicinal plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years in many countries. Millions of U.S. residents are using dietary supplements and over-the-counter products.
We are also getting emails from many parts of the world touting medicines — for example, herbs to prevent colds, ginkgo to improve memory, flaxseed to lower cholesterol. The other day I received note about some product company claiming it can cure diabetes. I have seen some products aiming to boost your immunity. Natural supplements industry is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Many people start using a natural product to lower cholesterol because they fear statins and they use a supplement. They do not check to see if it lowered their cholesterol.
Let us talk some more about the natural products. Federal regulations ensure that herbal supplements meet manufacturing standards but do not guarantee that they are safe or effective. Do your homework before you buy.
Herbal supplements generally have not been subjected to the same scientific scrutiny and are not as strictly regulated as medications. For example, although makers of herbal supplements must follow good manufacturing practices — to ensure that supplements are processed consistently and meet quality standards — they don’t have to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration before putting their products on the market. FDA in Maryland has a helpline 888-463-6332. You may want to contact them with a question or if there is an emergency related to a food supplement.
If you decide to take a product, talk with your doctor, especially if you have health problems and are taking other medicines. Specially, if you are breastfeeding or are carrying a baby. Products labeled as “natural” may also produce side effects may have adverse drug interactions with the drugs that you are already taking.
If you are looking for a natural product, see if they mentioned the ingredients, their chemical names and their active ingredients. Look for scientific research findings about the natural product. Two good sources are the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Office of Dietary Supplements. Both have websites that provide information to help consumers make informed choices about dietary supplements. An easy way to compare ingredients in products is to use the Dietary Supplement Label Database, which is available on the National Institute of Health’s website.
More so, all prescription and nonprescription drugs are regulated by Food and Drug Administration in USA. But dietary supplements are treated more like special foods.
In general, the FDA considers a drug to be unsafe until it is proven safe and effective through clinical trials.
Dietary supplements are a category of food that is different than medicines. Many dietary supplements have been found safe for a long haul. For example, the American Medical Association recommends all adult Americans to take multivitamins because they have been found safe.
How do you know if herbal supplements’ claims are true?
Manufacturers of herbal supplements are responsible for ensuring that the claims they make about their products are not false or misleading and that they’re backed up by adequate evidence. But they aren’t required to submit this evidence to the FDA.
So be a smart consumer. Do not just rely on a product’s marketing. Look for objective, research-based information to evaluate a product’s claims.
Do not underestimate the value of lifestyle changes. Regular exercise — half an hour most days — and dietary changes have a very important role to play in lowering your cholesterol.
Sometimes tendency to have high cholesterol is inherited from our parents. Many times, high cholesterol in the blood is related to consumption of high-calorie foods containing high amounts of fats. A lot depends on how much fat content you have in the food. Try to eat the good fat. The other name for good fat is monounsaturated fats. The bad fats are sometimes called saturated fats or polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats are present in avocado, trans-fat free nut butters, various kinds of nuts like almonds, cashews, macadamia, peanuts and pecans. They are also present in canola, olive and peanut oil. Olives are good, black or green.
Avoid the margarine, mayonnaise and any fat that is solid at room temperature. Many salad dressings, especially the regular ones, have high fat content.
Saturated fats are present in bacon, butter, cream, cream cheese and sour cream.
Try to stick to lean meats that have fats less than 3 grams per ounce.
If you are overweight, try to shed some pounds to get close to normal weight.
If you have done your homework and plan to try an herbal supplement, play it safe with these tips. Follow supplement instructions, and keep track of what you take. Stop taking the supplement if it isn’t effective or doesn’t meet your goals for taking it. Check alerts and advisories at the FDA website.
Good luck with lowering your cholesterol.
Suman Kumar Mishr, M.D., Fellow of American College of Medicine, Cridersville.