How Fiber Supplements Can Lower Your Cholesterol, Improve Your Heart Health
July 01, 2016
Grandmother was right that a fiber supplement will make your digestive system more regular. But did you know that these supplements can help you control your levels of bad cholesterol too?
More than 71 million people have high levels of LDL cholesterol, the undesirable cholesterol that increases the likelihood of having a heart attack, stroke or other conditions related to coronary heart disease.
In the past, the single best way to lower LDL levels, other than through lifestyle modifications, was to take a statin drug.
But studies now show that psyllium, the same dietary fiber supplement your grandma used as a laxative, helps lower LDL and total cholesterol, too.
What is Psyllium?
Psyllium is a form of fiber made from the husks of the Plantago ovata plant’s seeds, and sometimes goes by the name ispaghula. It is a bulk-forming laxative that soaks up liquid in the gut. Psyllium is sold under brand names such as Metamucil or Meta Daily Heart Health, and comes in the form of a powder that you stir into drinks or add to food, or a capsule that you take with water.
Bile acids help you to digest dietary fat and are normally reabsorbed to be used again. Psyllium forms a thick gel that traps bile acid and prevents its re-absorption and is then eliminated as food waste. In response, your liver removes cholesterol from the bloodstream to make more bile acids, lowering serum total and LDL cholesterol.
“It offers an integrative health approach to addressing high cholesterol that resonates with patients,” says cardiologist Daniel Simon, MD.
How to Know if Psyllium is Right For You
At your wellness check-up, your doctor orders a blood test to check your cholesterol levels, which is measured in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood. The ideal LDL cholesterol level is less than 130 mg/dL in patients without heart disease.
“If LDL cholesterol comes back at 190 mg/dL or above, our prevention guidelines recommend lifestyle modification before initiating lifelong drug therapy with statin medication," Dr. Simon says.
Such modifications will likely include recommendations to exercise 20 to 30 minutes five days a week, lose weight if necessary, and eat a healthy diet, such as American Heart Association's Step 2 diet, to lower cholesterol, Dr. Simon says.
Most people will comply to some degree, Dr. Simon says, but they may be unable to get their LDL down to 130 mg/dL before their follow-up appointment. At that point, many doctors will prescribe statin drugs.
“We’re now also recommending that patients consider taking psyllium before starting drug therapy,” Dr. Simon says. “In patients who are making reasonable lifestyle modifications, this natural vegetable product is helpful in lowering cholesterol up to 10 percent – possibly even higher in some patients.”
Other Benefits with Psyllium
Consistent use of psyllium may have other positive effects on health, Dr. Simon says.
“We are also seeing other benefits with this product, such as blood pressure lowering and reductions in markers of blood sugar elevation in patients with diabetes,” Dr. Simon says.
The best part is that it is a natural approach that does not rely on medicine, with their potential side effects, he says.
“When patients find out they can have these kinds of benefits from a natural fiber product, most people say, ‘I'm game, I'm in,’” he says.
“I really can't think of a downside to using this product. It's convenient, it's easy to use and it will help you get more fiber in your diet, which most of us are lacking," Dr. Simon says. "Plus, it has the potential to reduce coronary heart disease as a consequence of lowering cholesterol.”
Daniel Simon, MD is a cardiologist, director of University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute. You can request an appointment with Dr. Simon or any other University Hospitals doctor online.