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6 Common Supplements That Won’t Lower Your Cholesterol

New study finds statins much more effective than fish oil, turmeric, other over-the-counter remedies

Fish oil capsules on white background, healthy diet concept.
Pakin Songmor

If you’ve been holding off on taking prescription medication in hopes that a supplement will lower your cholesterol, you may want to reconsider.

new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that six dietary supplements commonly marketed for improving heart health (fish oil, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, plant sterols and red yeast rice) did not lower levels of so-called “bad cholesterol” (or LDL) when compared to a placebo or a low-dose cholesterol-lowering medication. And, in fact, the medication, known as a statin, was significantly more effective at lowering cholesterol than the supplements studied.

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Still, study senior author Steven Nissen, M.D., says he “constantly” sees patients turning to supplements to lower their cholesterol and better their health.

“I would say the majority of the patients that come to see me are taking one or more dietary supplements, some of them are taking as many as six to eight dietary supplements,” says Nissen, chief academic officer of the Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute at Cleveland Clinic. “And the vast majority of them, almost all of them, have no evidence for any favorable effect on human health.”

Misinformation impacts statin use

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates in the blood. It’s often talked about as a health hazard, but it’s not all bad — especially in its natural state. The body makes what it needs and uses it to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones. Cholesterol also comes from foods; and having too much of it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and lead to heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association explains.

Nearly 94 million Americans ages 20 and older have high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cutting back on saturated fats (commonly found in animal products like beef, pork, butter and cheese), as well as trans fats (frequently found in processed cakes, cookies and pizzas) can lower cholesterol levels; so can increasing physical activity and losing weight. And when lifestyle changes don’t work, medication can help. Still, the CDC reports about half of people who could benefit from cholesterol medicine aren’t taking it.

A big reason patients are passing on the pill, experts say, is misinformation.

“Unfortunately, many U.S. consumers believe cholesterol health supplements are safer than prescription medications and believe supplements are as effective, or more effective, than statins,” says Luke Laffin, M.D., study coauthor and codirector of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders in the Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

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For this recent study, 190 participants between the ages of 40 and 75 were randomized to take one of eight pills for 28 days: the low-dose statin medication rosuvastatin (5 mg daily), a placebo, fish oil, cinnamon, garlic, turmeric, plant sterols or red yeast rice. Those who took the statin saw a nearly 40 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol and a 24 percent decrease in total cholesterol. Blood triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood) were also reduced. Participants taking the supplements or placebo, however, saw no significant benefit.

What’s more, no adverse events were reported in any of the groups. “The safety of statins has been established over decades in studies involving literally millions of patients,” Nissen says, adding that some people may experience muscle aches when taking a statin, but that can typically be alleviated by adjusting the dosage or switching brands.

“This is a class of medication that's probably made more of a difference in reducing the morbidity and mortality of heart disease than any other drug class ever developed,” Nissen adds.

Optimal Cholesterol Levels

Curious what numbers are considered normal?

  • Total cholesterol: About 150 mg/dL
  • LDL (“bad”) cholesterol: About 100 mg/dL
  • HDL (“good”) cholesterol: At least 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

The authors note a few limitations to the study. The sample size was relatively small and not very diverse, and its duration was 28 days, which was long enough for the statin medication to make a difference in cholesterol levels, but, as Laffin told the American Heart Association, “it is unknown if some of the supplements may require a longer time to have any effect on cholesterol.”

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the leading trade association representing the dietary supplement industry, released a statement Nov. 6 in response to the study, saying its design “misses the point of supplementation.” The group’s Senior Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Andrea Wong said, “Dietary supplements are not intended to be quick fixes and their effects may not be revealed during the course of a study that only spans four weeks, particularly on a multifactorial condition like high cholesterol.”

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Bottom line: Talk to your doctor

Americans spent nearly $50 billion on supplements in 2021, and their use is especially popular among older adults. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, nearly three-quarters of adults 60 and older take supplements.

However many experts warn against relying on vitamins, minerals and plant extracts to treat or prevent heart disease due to scant evidence and possible safety issues stemming from overuse, side effectsmedication interactions and lax regulation. Dietary supplements are not held to the same rigorous standards as over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs. In fact, some products even contain hidden drugs and are falsely marketed, the Food and Drug Administration says.

Bottom line, Laffin says, is if you’ve had conversations with your doctor about starting cholesterol-lowering medications, “it’s probably best to continue those conversations and not resort to over-the-counter supplements.”

And if your cholesterol needs to be reduced and your doctor recommends a statin, don’t be afraid to take it. When it comes to lowering cholesterol, “statins work, supplements don't,” Nissen adds.