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These Supplements are "Ineffective" at Lowering Cholesterol, Says American Heart Association

Here are six supplements used in the new study.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

A new report from the American Heart Association shows that six popular "heart health" supplements are ineffective at lowering cholesterol when compared to statins. The six supplements all claim to be able to lower "bad" LDL cholesterol, but according to the study, average LDL cholesterol reduction for those who took the statin vs the supplements was 37.9%. When comparing the results of those who took a placebo vs supplements, there was no difference in cholesterol levels. The study was funded by AstraZeneca.

"According to a 2020 market research analysis, Americans spend an estimated $50 billion on dietary supplements annually, and many are marketed for 'heart protection' or 'cholesterol management'. Yet there is minimal-to-no research demonstrating these benefits," says study author Luke J. Laffin, MD, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. "Some people also believe supplements are as effective or more effective than cholesterol-lowering statin medications."

"Although there are prior studies demonstrating that red yeast rice and plant sterol supplements may reduce LDL cholesterol, the findings of our study underscore that the contents of these dietary supplements may vary. Therefore, they do not produce consistent reductions in cholesterol," Laffin says. "This study sends an important public health message that dietary supplements commonly taken for 'cholesterol health' or 'heart health' are unlikely to offer meaningful impact on cholesterol levels. The results also indicate that a low-dose statin offers important beneficial effects on one's cholesterol profile. Future research should study other types of dietary supplements and their potential impact on cholesterol levels." Here are the six supplements ineffective at lowering cholesterol, according to the AHA. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Fish Oil

fish oil

Fish oil is one of the supplements used in the study. The American Heart Association previously warned that the alleged benefits of fish oil supplements are not backed by scientific data. "People in the general population who are taking omega-3 fish oil supplements are taking them in the absence of scientific data that shows any benefit of the supplements in preventing heart attacks, stroke, heart failure or death for people who do not have a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease," says Dr. David Siscovick, in an AHA statement.

Eating specific foods is the best way to get the nutrients and health benefits of omega-3s, experts say. "The human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. That isn't the case for omega-3 fatty acids (also called omega-3 fats and n-3 fats)," says Harvard Health. "These are essential fats—the body can't make them from scratch but must get them from food. Foods high in omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables. What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions."



yogurt and cinnamon

Cinnamon was another supplement not shown to improve cholesterol levels. "It's uncertain whether cinnamon is helpful for weight loss or for controlling blood levels of cholesterol and related lipids," says the National Center For Complementary and Integrative Health. "There's not enough evidence to show whether cinnamon is helpful for irritable bowel syndrome. Cassia cinnamon contains a chemical called coumarin, which can be harmful to the liver. Some cassia cinnamon products contain high levels of this substance. In most cases, consuming cassia cinnamon doesn't provide enough coumarin to cause significant problems. However, prolonged use of cassia cinnamon could be an issue for sensitive people, such as those with liver disease."

One issue with cinnamon studies is it's unclear what type of cinnamon or which part of the plant was used. "A 2019 review of 18 studies of cinnamon supplementation in people with diabetes suggested that cinnamon could reduce blood sugar but didn't have a significant effect on hemoglobin A1C, which reflects blood sugar levels over a longer period of time," says the NCCIH. "However, it's unclear whether these findings are meaningful because 10 of the studies didn't identify the type of cinnamon used, and 8 of the studies were judged to be of low quality for other reasons."



rosemary garlic seasoning

Garlic supplements were not shown to improve cholesterol levels. "It's best to consult your doctor before starting to take any supplement — especially a daily supplement. That advice especially applies to garlic supplements," according to Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD, via the Cleveland Clinic. "On rare occasions, garlic supplements can cause headaches, fatigue, appetite loss, muscle aches, dizziness and allergic reactions like asthma attacks or skin rashes. If you take blood thinners, a garlic supplement can increase the medication's effect, making it even harder for your blood to clot."

Previous research from Stanford University has also debunked garlic's role in potentially lowering LDL cholesterol. "It just doesn't work," said senior author Christopher Gardner, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. "There's no shortcut. You achieve good health through eating healthy food. There isn't a pill or an herb you can take to counteract an unhealthy diet. If garlic was going to work, in one form or another, then it would have worked in our study. The lack of effect was compelling and clear. We took cholesterol measurements every month for six months and the numbers just didn't move. There was no effect with any of the three products, even though fairly high doses were used."


Turmeric Curcumin

turmeric in bowl and wooden spoon
Shutterstock / monticello

Turmeric curcumin was not shown to lower cholesterol levels, although previous studies have shown promising health benefits. "Turmeric in food is considered safe. However, taking large amounts of turmeric and curcumin in supplement form for long periods of time may cause stomach upset and, in extreme cases, ulcers," says Mount Sinai Health. "People who have gallstones or obstruction of the bile passages should talk to their doctor before taking turmeric. If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor before taking turmeric supplements." 

Turmeric could potentially interfere with some prescription medications. "Turmeric may lower blood sugar levels. When combined with medications for diabetes, turmeric could cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Although it is safe to eat foods with turmeric, pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take turmeric supplements. Because turmeric may act like a blood thinner, you should stop taking it at least 2 weeks before surgery. Tell your doctor and surgeon that you have been taking turmeric."


Plant Sterols and Stanols


Plant sterols and stanols were not shown to lower cholesterol levels in the study. "Sterols and stanols have been added to certain foods," says the British Heart Foundation. "These products are safe for people taking cholesterol lowering medication such as statins and fibrates. As they work in different ways to reduce cholesterol, the effect can be cumulative. They are not a replacement for any cholesterol lowering medication – and if you are already taking medication to help lower your cholesterol, you should inform your doctor before you start taking them."

The BHF makes it clear that taking these supplements are not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. "The effect varies between individuals, but there is evidence to show that plant sterols and stanols can help to reduce LDL cholesterol by levels up to 10-15% when 2g/day is regularly consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet. However, these products are not a substitute

for a healthy balanced diet or a replacement for cholesterol lowering drugs. Whilst there is an expectation that their cholesterol lowering effect will lead to fewer heart attacks, there is no evidence to show this. You'll still need to make changes to your diet and lifestyle to help reduce your cholesterol levels and your overall risk of coronary heart disease."


Red Yeast Rice

Red Yeast Rice

Red yeast rice supplements were also used in the study and not shown to lower LDL cholesterol. Red yeast rice has the potential to cause liver damage, according to experts. In one case, a 64-year-old woman taking 1200 mg per day of red yeast rice supplements as an alternative to statins developed liver damage. "As this case demonstrates, red yeast rice supplement has the potential to cause severe adverse effects, such as acute liver injury," researchers warn. "Supplements are not necessarily safer than prescription medications, and physicians and patients should research their adverse effect profile before using them or approving their use."

"Do not use this drug if you are pregnant or breast-feeding," says the Cleveland Clinic. "Serious side effects to an unborn child or to an infant are possible. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist for more information. Herbal or dietary supplements are not regulated like medicines. Rigid quality control standards are not required for dietary supplements. The purity and strength of these products can vary. The safety and effect of this dietary supplement for a certain disease or illness is not well known. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan