Cholesterol – friend or foe?
Cholesterol is often demonised in the media for its association with heart disease and increased blood pressure, however, the truth is that your body does need a certain amount of cholesterol to function properly. For example, cholesterol is crucial for producing sex hormones and plays an important role in brain function and bile production.
A lack of cholesterol can cause almost as many problems as an excess, although you’re probably more familiar with the effects of high cholesterol than low cholesterol, and for good reason! Unfortunately high cholesterol is becoming increasingly more prevalent in the West and it is a leading source of heart disease in countries such as the UK and USA.
But why? Well, first let’s look at the types of cholesterol found in your body: LDL and HDL. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein is probably the form of cholesterol that gets most of the bad press. LDL helps to carry cholesterol from your liver to the cells in your body that need it.
The second type of cholesterol is HDL, also known as high-density lipoprotein. HDL is sometimes referred to as ‘good cholesterol’ and it mainly helps to carry excess cholesterol back to the liver so it can be broken down. Generally, your doctors would prefer you to have high levels of HDL and low levels of LDL.
However, since LDL can be synthesised from saturated fats, when your body starts to produce too much cholesterol, it can cause fatty deposits to appear on the walls of your arteries. These fatty deposits may make it more difficult for blood to pass through your arteries, raising your blood pressure and increasing your risk of developing a heart attack.
Can artichokes help to lower your cholesterol?
So where exactly do artichokes fit into this picture? Well, the humble artichoke does have a myriad of health benefits. They’re extremely high in antioxidants, rivalling blueberries and cranberries when it comes to their content of rutin and anthocyanins, and are rich in dietary fibre.1
Artichokes also contain a substance known as cynarin, which can help to promote the production of bile, which is present in our own Artichoke Cynara Drops. It’s also why we include artichokes in our Digestisan remedy for problems such as bloating and indigestion.
When it comes to cholesterol, though, several studies have been conducted on artichoke leaf extract. In 2001, patients that suffered from high cholesterol were given a 1800mg of dose of artichoke leaf extract for six weeks. The results demonstrated that artichoke leaf extract had managed to achieve a reduction of approximately 20% of LDL cholesterol!
Another trial in 2008 seems to back up this finding, with 131 patients being given artichoke capsules for 12 weeks. They noticed that their cholesterol levels dropped during this time by 4.2% compared to the placebo-control group which noticed a 1.9% rise.2
These results are hopeful and definitely seem to paint artichokes in positive light. However, it’s important to note that artichoke leaf extract was mainly used on healthy patients with moderately raised levels of cholesterol. If you do have high levels of cholesterol, it really is crucial that you consider resolving other issues, such as your diet and lifestyle habits.
2Bundy R et al. Phytomedicine 15 (2008), 668-675
What about other foods?
It should go without saying that if you are trying to adjust your diet to help support healthy cholesterol levels, you should start by cutting down on the saturated fats.
Interestingly, there is some research that indicates that vegetarian and vegan diets may be associated with lower levels of plasma lipids, which would seem to support the idea of increasing your intake of fruit, vegetables and pulses whilst cutting out processed meats and fats.3
Exercise is important too, so I would try to increase your activity by going for a brisk 20 minute walk each day. If you are curious about other forms of exercise, such as yoga, running or cycling, please check out our Get Active pages. If you are a smoker, now might be the time to consider ditching the addiction as smoking can help to increase your cholesterol!
3Yoko Yokoyama, Susan M. Levin, and Neal D. Barnard
Avocados provide a healthy source of fat, with research showing that avocado consumption can help to reduce your total cholesterol, including LDL! Some experts advise that fresh avocados can be a good substitute for solids fats, not to mention they’re rich in fibre which is another plus in the battle against cholesterol.4
My favourite avocado recipe:
Quinoa Stuffed Avocados
Sunflower seeds are great to snack on when you’re feeling a bit peckish and they’re rich in vitamin E, selenium and essential fatty acids. Similar to avocados, they are a healthy source of fat and can help to reduce inflammation.
Research has shown that sunflower seeds can help to reduce hypertension and balance your cholesterol due to their ability to combat oxidative stress and their content of phytosterols! Phytosterols can help to check unhealthy cholesterol which can diminish your risk of heart disease.5
My favourite sunflower seed recipe:
Potato Bake with Avocado, Mushroom & Seeds
Oats are rich in a form of soluble fibre known as beta-glucan, which can help to lower cholesterol. It works to bind excess cholesterol and prevents it from being absorbed by the body. One study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that oats, in addition to other cholesterol-lowering foods, were able to lower cholesterol levels about as well as cholesterol-lowering drugs!6
The health benefits of oats aren’t just limited to cholesterol, though – they’re popular with those trying to lower their blood glucose levels too! Oats are also high in antioxidants, specifically a group called avenanthramides, which can help to lower your blood pressure levels and even reduce itching!
My favourite oat recipe:
Almonds and Strawberry Jam Flapjacks
Almonds, pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts; there’s plenty of variety out there to choose from! Nuts can be very useful as a midday snack but they also contain a range of beneficial health properties that may help to lower cholesterol. Research has indicated that as part of a balanced diet, nuts can “favourably affect blood lipid (fat/cholesterol) levels.”
However, it is important to note that while nuts can be low in saturated fats, they are still quite high in calories and other fats so some moderation might be necessary.
My favourite nut recipe:
Cherry & Almond Snack Bars
Oily fish, such as tuna, salmon and sardines, are incredibly good for you. This is mainly because of their content of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to support healthy brain function. However, oily fish are also very useful when it comes to fighting cholesterol as they can lower triglycerides.
Triglycerides are a type of fat lipid that can linger in your bloodstream and increase your risk of heart disease. Oily fish can help to reduce these triglycerides and even slow down the development of plaques in your arteries! That, combined with their natural anti-inflammatory action, makes oily fish a valuable tool in your dietary arsenal!
My favourite oily fish recipe:
Grilled Honey Lemon Sardines with Rice