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Plant Sterols And Cholesterol: Can It Help Your Heart Health?

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

High cholesterol is something that can affect a lot of people. Even if you eat less dietary cholesterol than the next person, you may still be affected by it, and not them. Why does this happen? Read on to find out how your genes may influence your cholesterol, and how plant sterols may help you manage your levels.

An Introduction to Plant Sterols and Cholesterol

There is good cholesterol, known as high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or HDL-cholesterol. There’s bad cholesterol, which is low-density, and thus LDL-cholesterol. Then there’s the ugly side-kick, plant sterol, which can be helpful in dealing with the bad guy. He doesn’t get a handy abbreviation. The good, the bad, and the ugly (cue classic theme music)!

Most everyone, at some point in their lives, will have their cholesterol checked and/or be told to get it checked. There’s a good reason for this. Too much of the “bad” type of cholesterol can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke [1], and it’s not hard to find in the modern day diet.

However, it’s not as simple as having the good, dumping the bad, and using a bit of the ugly to help out. As with many things regarding your health, it depends. Let’s dig a little deeper.

What Is Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the outer layer of all of your body’s cells. Your body also needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. Around 20% of your cholesterol is absorbed in your gut from the food you eat, and the rest is made by your liver.

Your liver packages up the cholesterol with fats and protein, and then sends it around your body to get used up by the cells that need it. These fats and protein are called LDL and HDL particles. You can think of LDL and HDL particles as the cars on the highway (blood vessels) and cholesterol molecules as passengers.

Cholesterol transported by LDL particles is considered “bad” because that’s the cholesterol that can clog and damage your blood vessels. HDL-cholesterol is known as “good cholesterol” because HDL particles actually remove cholesterol from cells and artery walls — they clean up the excess cholesterol and take it back to the liver to get broken down.

When you get “high” cholesterol, you are in fact getting levels of LDL-cholesterol that the HDL-cholesterol can no longer handle. This is when plaque starts getting deposited on the walls of your arteries.

That’s why if you have too much LDL-cholesterol, one of the first actions your doctor will recommend is to eat less saturated and trans fat [2]. Another thing that may help, is to get more plant sterols.

What Are Plant Sterols?

If you were guessing by the name that it must somehow be similar to cholesterol, you’d be right! What cholesterol does for cells in the human body, plant sterols do for plant cells.

You can find plant sterols in fortified foods like orange juice, margarine, bread, cheese, and a number of natural foods like:

  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Spices
  • Oils
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

Because plant sterols are similar in structure, the body tries to process them in a similar fashion and thus blocks out cholesterol from getting absorbed by your gut [3, 4, 5]!

Are Plant Sterols Dangerous?

While many studies do confirm that plant sterols will lower LDL-cholesterol levels, there is also growing evidence that for some people, they may offer no reduction to the risk of heart disease and may even increase it if too much is consumed [6].

For those already at risk for or have heart disease, high levels of plant sterols may raise the risk for heart attack or stroke [7]. Some studies indicate high levels of plant sterols may be a risk factor for hardening of the arteries [8].

How much is too much? There are a lot of factors involved that determine how much you absorb into your system and how it’s processed and eliminated. Whether or not consuming plant sterols to lower cholesterol has risks can vary depending on each individual.

Remember that some natural foods are high in plant sterols, like vegetable oils. You might get plenty in the foods you eat. You may need a bit extra to bump down those LDL-cholesterol levels, but without regular testing, it’s difficult to know.

Genetics is another important factor that can affect how well you’ll respond to this cholesterol managing strategy. This means that knowing you have a relevant variant can totally change what you want to do.

How Are Your Genetics Involved?

Researchers investigating the effects of plant-sterol on your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) found that, despite their potential benefits, a small group of people actually experience no benefit.

Research indicates that there is some variability in people’s response to using plant sterols, but why does this happen [9, 10, 11]? Well, the answer to this question may be in your DNA.

A variant of the CYP7A1 gene may alter your cholesterol levels by increasing the rate at which cholesterol is absorbed in your gut. The good news is that this variant may also increase the effectiveness of plant sterols and stanols at lowering your cholesterol [12].

So normally, if your absorption levels are higher, you may end up having higher cholesterol levels even if you eat less cholesterol than another person. This is hardly a benefit, but knowing you have the CYP7A1 variant could allow you to more easily counteract this issue through the use of plant sterols. Knowing your genetics is the real benefit!

Can Plant Sterols Help You Lower Your Cholesterol?

If you’re wondering if consuming plant sterols to lower cholesterol has risks for you, looking at your DNA may be of help. The information hidden in your genes may help predict the best cholesterol-lowering strategies that work for you.

We’ve discussed one gene that may influence your cholesterol. If you have a particular variant, plant sterols may help you improve your levels. However, that may not always be the case – there might be other steps you could prioritize to optimize your health. For example, if you have a variant of the PCSK9 gene, supplementing with berberine could be a better choice for you [13].

For a gene-based approach to optimizing your cholesterol levels, you should check out SelfDecode. The SelfDecode Cholesterol DNA Wellness Report analyzes over 1 million genetic variants to give you personalized recommendations based on your DNA.

Plant sterols DNA recommendation for cholesterol

High cholesterol can lead to serious issues like heart disease, but there are steps you can take to prevent your heart health from deteriorating in the first place. SelfDecode can help you find out if consuming plant sterols is something that can work for you.


About the Author

Jim Duncan

Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.


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