Although you can go to your doctor and get a prescription for just about any health issue known to man, medications have their drawbacks. More and more people today are looking for more natural (and safer) ways to improve their health. As Hippocrates once said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”. This is as true today as it was back then. One of the best ways to improve your health is by improving your diet. But even if you think you’re eating well you may be missing out on some less-known but vital nutrients, such as plant sterols. Read on to learn more about plant sterols and how they can benefit your health by helping to lower your cholesterol. What are plant sterols? Plant sterols, also known as phytosterols, come from plants. These naturally-occurring substances are the plant’s cholesterol. Just as humans have cholesterol, so do plants. Both human and plant cholesterol is critically important in maintaining a healthy state. However, when cholesterol levels begin to exceed normal levels, they turn from good to bad in which high levels of LDL cholesterol can begin to harm the body by increasing the chances of heart disease.
If you were to look at plant sterols under a microscope, they look very similar to human cholesterol. They are found in fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, seeds, and most types of grain. Because of their many health benefits, several manufacturers are now adding them to healthy snacks and heart healthy foods. These include foods such as healthy chips made from whole grains, orange juice and margarine. How do Plant Sterols Work in the Body? Plant sterols and stanols have a structure similar to cholesterol. They compete with cholesterol for access to receptors in the small intestines known as micelles. Micelles help transport cholesterol through the intestine into your blood stream. Imagine 15 people all hoping to get a ride in their friend’s Volkswagen Beetle – not everyone is going to be riding in the car. The same thing happens when plant sterols are introduced into the small intestine along with cholesterol.
Only so many can hop a ride on the micelle and those left behind are exited from the body. Over 140 clinical studies have been conducted and have shown that sterols and stanols reduce LDL cholesterol levels by between 5 and 14 percent. While there are more and more heart healthy snacks and heart healthy foods available today, those which have plant sterols (meeting specific FDA criteria) can sport a statement on the package indicating they may help lower the chances of heart disease. Health Benefits of Plant Sterols Nearly a quarter of a century of research has shown us that plant sterols may benefit your health in a multitude of ways. In addition to lowering cholesterol, some studies suggest that they may also:
* Help reduce inflammation
* Reverse immune system abnormalities
* Benefit the health of cells
* Assist in balancing various hormones
* Decrease the body’s auto-immune responses
* Help with chronic fatigue syndrome
* Help reduce symptoms associated with menopause
* Reduce symptoms associated with an enlarged prostrate
* Inhibit the growth of certain types of cancer
* Benefit conditions such as asthma, gallstones, and migraines How much plant sterols are needed? If lowering cholesterol is your goal, experts recommend that to get the maximum benefits you should consume between 1.5 to 3 grams of plant sterols per day. To begin to see any benefits you need to consume a minimum of 0.8 grams per day. Most Americans get approximately 0.25 grams per day of plant sterols from the foods they consume today. While it may be difficult to get this amount naturally from heart healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, it is very achievable if you add foods fortified with plant sterols such as specific chips, breads, and margarines. What foods should I eat? The following list contains several healthy foods which may have plant sterols added (check the label to ensure it reads: “contains plant sterols”): * Spreadable margarines * Salad dressings