Many supplements are marketed to help reduce cholesterol levels. But with so many on the market, it can be difficult to know if they really work or are worth the money. Most of the time, if a supplement makes you a promise that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Making changes to your diet and activity level are much more effective and potentially safer than taking a supplement. Food contains an abundance of nutrients that work synergistically in your body to help improve overall health, including lowering cholesterol. Supplements are expensive and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Taking certain supplements can be dangerous, especially if they interfere with your medications or cause unwanted side effects.
Cholesterol is a waxy fat-like substance that is made by the liver and plays a role in making hormones and vitamins. Dietary cholesterol is found in food, such as dairy products and meat. Having “high cholesterol” usually means you have too much LDL (“bad”) cholesterol circulating in your blood and not enough HDL (“good”) cholesterol, a factor that can increase your risk of heart disease. Genetic predisposition, a diet high in saturated and trans fat, sedentary lifestyle, age, gender, smoking or having clinical obesity are all risk factors. Treatment for high cholesterol can include changes in diet, physical activity, smoking cessation and, in some instances, medication.
In this article, you will learn about four supplements you should not take if you have high cholesterol. These supplements can interact with medications, or the contents in them vary widely, and it is difficult to determine the effects they can have on your health.
4 Supplements You Shouldn’t Be Taking If You Have High Cholesterol
Potassium is an important mineral that plays a role in maintaining fluid balance within cells. Eating foods rich in potassium is often recommended for lowering blood pressure. That’s because potassium helps to remove sodium from your body via urine, which in turn can help to lower blood pressure, especially for people who consume a high-sodium diet.
Having high blood pressure and high cholesterol can often co-exist. That said, if you have been prescribed medicines to help lower your blood pressure, potassium supplements may not be safe. Taking ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors reduces urinary excretion of potassium and can lead to hyperkalemia (too much potassium in the blood). Sudden hyperkalemia can cause heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea or vomiting. In severe cases, it can be life-threatening.
Instead of taking a supplement, focus on getting potassium through nutritious foods, like fruits, vegetables, fish and low-fat dairy products.
2. Red yeast rice
Red yeast rice is made by fermenting rice with a yeast (Monascus purpureus), which enriches the rice with monacolins, including monacolin K. Monacolin K is structurally identical to a statin that is commonly used to treat high cholesterol, called lovastatin (brand names Mevacor, Altoprev). Red yeast products that have high amounts of monacolin K have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels, blood glucose and blood pressure. Unfortunately, the contents of these supplements can vary widely, and not all supplements list how much monacolin K is in their products. Certain products may not contain enough monacolin K to have an effect, while others that have higher amounts may have illegally added lovastatin to their products. Because these products are not regulated by the FDA, it is hard to know exactly what they contain. Products with high levels of monacolin K are considered to be unapproved new drugs by the FDA and are illegal in the U.S.
In addition, some products have been shown to be contaminated. In a 2021 analysis of 37 red yeast rice products, only one had levels below the maximum level of citrinin, a mycotoxin that can cause kidney damage at high levels.
3. Garlic supplements
Garlic has numerous health benefits—it is a prebiotic (which means it helps feed the good bacteria in our guts) and may have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. Raw garlic and garlic supplements have been studied for their use in lowering cholesterol. Allicin, a bioactive compound, is thought to induce this effect. In a meta-analysis, researchers found that garlic helped reduce total and LDL cholesterol.
Eating garlic is safe for most people and can have health benefits, but garlic can have mild anticoagulating effects. Therefore, if you take blood thinners, NSAIDs or have a bleeding disorder, you should probably avoid garlic supplements (as supplements are more concentrated). Other side effects include body odor, upset stomach and heartburn.
4. Combination supplements
Some supplements on the market contain various ingredient combinations and are marketed to support healthy cholesterol levels. These supplements may contain oil extracts, niacin and magnesium, to name a few. Keep in mind that these supplements are targeted at consumers who already have healthy cholesterol levels. Supplements like these are not intended to be used by people with established elevated cholesterol levels and are not meant to be a substitute for medication.
Tips for Healthy Eating If You Have High Cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, eating a diet that is rich in fiber and lower in saturated fat can yield positive results. Soluble fiber acts like a sponge and can help usher cholesterol and fat out of the body. Foods that contain soluble fiber include vegetables, fruits, legumes, oats and whole grains. Fiber has a filling effect, too. Eating more fiber can help you feel more satisfied from eating less, which may help support weight-loss efforts. Research has found that losing weight may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.
To reduce your intake of saturated fats, opt to eat less fatty meats, fried foods and full-fat dairy products. For example, instead of fried chicken with the skin, choose baked chicken breast or roast a whole chicken and pair it with sautéed vegetables and seasoned sweet potatoes. Consider limiting red meat to no more than twice per week, and choose leaner cuts when possible. Choose lower-fat dairy products or simply use a smaller portion of the real deal. Include sources of unsaturated fats in your diet to promote heart health, add flavor and help with feelings of fullness. Avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil are excellent sources of unsaturated fats.
Frequently Asked Questions
What supplements can raise your cholesterol levels?
There are two main types of cholesterol—low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). To keep your heart healthy, you want your LDL to be low and your HDL to be high. High levels of LDL can contribute to clogged arteries, and low levels of HDL are associated with heart disease. HDL carries LDL particles out of your blood to your liver, so they can be metabolized and excreted.
You can raise your HDL by eating a nutritious diet and moving regularly. Some supplements, including omega-3 fatty acids (which are also in products like fish oil) and niacin may also help to increase your HDL. Ask your physician if these supplements are right for you.
Can vitamin D raise cholesterol levels?
How supplemental vitamin D affects cholesterol levels continues to be evaluated. A recent meta-analysis concluded that vitamin D supplementation reduced total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, but not HDL. This appears to be more beneficial for those people who have vitamin D insufficiency, as low vitamin D is associated with abnormal cholesterol levels. However, more research is needed to determine the exact effects of vitamin D supplementation on cholesterol levels.
The Bottom Line
If you think you want to try a supplement to help lower your cholesterol levels, it’s important to know that not all supplements are created equal and, because they are not regulated, there can be risks. Supplements can be contaminated, produce unwanted side effects, interfere with your medications and drain your wallet.
Before spending money on things that may not work, consider making some changes to how you eat and how much you move. Small, sustainable changes can go a long way. If you need assistance in sorting through supplements, discuss it with a registered dietitian or your medical provider.