Sterols are produced by plants and animals and are essential components of cell membranes. Cholesterol is a type of sterol produced in the bodies of animals and humans and plant sterols are produced in plants. Plant sterols have a similar structure cholesterol that provide a mechanism through which high cholesterol levels can be kept at bay. Spreads like margarine and butter are often fortified with plant sterols and stanols to increase lipid solubility.
What are plant sterols?
Plant sterols help with the formation of cell membranes in plants. These sterols or stanols are similar in structure to cholesterol and people have grown and developed with these naturally occurring molecules. Stanols are sterols that have been hydrogenated. Esterification of plant sterols (and stanols) enhances their lipid solubility and eases their incorporation into fortified foods.
How do plant sterols work?
Plant sterols (and stanols) lower concentrations of cholesterol by competing and partially blocking the gut absorption of cholesterol. This helps to reduce LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels in the blood.
How much should I take?
Sterols seem to have their highest effectiveness at dosages between 1 and 2 grams a day. Dosages of less than 1 gram daily don’t produce noteworthy results and dosages higher than 2 grams a day also don’t show much potential benefits for health.
Where can I find plant sterols?
Sterols can be found naturally in foods like vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, wholegrains legumes, fruits and vegetables however, they are more concentrated in cotton oil, sesame oil and corn oil. It is none the less not possible to get enough sterols from these sources alone. This is why a variety of food products are fortified with these sterols. Fats help to solubilize sterols and margarines, salad dressing, cream cheese, and yogurt are used as vehicles for this function nowadays. The first fortified margarine was Benecol and stanols were added to this spread.
The prices of such fortified foods, nevertheless are quite high and while some people are willing to pay a lot to keep healthy, other people who are less privileged will refrain from buying such expensive foods. Another obstacle is the fact that you can’t be sure of the exact amounts that you ingest through fortified spreads etc.
Plant sterol supplements are widely available on the market by various manufacturers in dosage forms so that you can be sure of ingesting the correct amount of plant sterols on a daily basis. With careful compilations of the correct dosages of the correct substances, you can be assured of what you are taking when you invest in a plant sterol supplement.
Health benefits of plant sterols
There is a strong connection between high LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. It is thought that the risk of getting heart disease can be decreased by taking in plant sterols by up to 25% because it causes a reduction in LDL cholesterol.
The use of plant sterols for lowering cholesterol is gaining increased attention. Sterols may be combined with cholesterol lowering drugs like statins that work through a different mechanism of action. Therefore cholesterol patients can use plant-sterol supplementation in order to reduce drug dependency.
Plant sterols may have an impact on atherosclerosis prevention by reducing blood cholesterol levels and because of its potential anti-atherogenicity activity.
Furthermore, studies have shown that sterols may have anti-inflammatory actions and antioxidant activity.
Most surprisingly, the lowering effect of plant sterols on cholesterol levels seems to work the same on anyone regardless of their lifestyle or cholesterol profile. Plant sterols are however not suitable for pregnant and lactating women.
What about the functions of cholesterol?
Cholesterol has experienced a lot of negative press, yet it does play a vital role in the body as it helps in the production of hormones and cell parts. The good news is that it is near impossible to lower cholesterol excessively, because the body will react to a cholesterol shortage by synthesising more cholesterol.
Get plant sterols and get healthy!
Plant sterols seem to be the real deal when it comes to lowering bad cholesterol levels. Don’t you think it is time to invest in your health?
- Law MR. Plant sterol and stanol margarines and health. Western Journal of Medicine. 2000;173(1):43-47
- Berger A, Jones PJ, Abumweis SS. Sterols: factors affecting their efficacy and safety as functional food ingredients. Lipids in health and disease. April 2004; vol. 3(1):1.
- Hamilton Family Health Team Registered Dietitians Facts on plant sterols. January 2014; [Available from: http://www.lipidgeneticsclinic.ca/documents/Patient%20Nutrition%20Resource%20PDFs/Facts_on_Plant_Sterols.pdf]