Plant stanols and sterols, also called phytostanols and phytosterols are a group of naturally occurring compounds found in plant cell membranes.
They occur naturally in small amounts in a range of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Rich natural sources include rice bran, avocado oil, wheat and extra virgin olive oil.
Daily diets only provide small amounts of plant sterols
For the majority of people, their daily diet provides a small amount of plant sterols. Vegetarian diets typically contain 50% more compared to non vegetarian diets. Due to the fact that our diets do not provide enough to bring about their benefits, a range of food products have been developed that have plant sterols added to them - these include milk, yogurts, margarine spreads and yogurt drinks. Examples of brands of foods that contain plant sterols that can help us to meet the suggested effective dose include Benecol and Flora Proactive.
Plant sterols help reduce the absorption of cholesterol
Plant sterols have a similar structure to cholesterol. It is this similarity that helps to reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the gut. When they are consumed they effectively compete with cholesterol for absorption in the digestive system. In other words plant sterols work by impairing the uptake of cholesterol from the gut thereby reducing the amount that enters your blood stream. They have been seen to reduce total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and may beneficially influence high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and triglycerides (TG). Incidentally research indicates there is no significant clinical difference between plant sterols in terms of their effects on total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, or TG levels.
Scientific evidence shows sterols can reduce LDL cholesterol by between 10% and 20%. If such a reduction were directly translated into the risks of coronary heart disease, the risk would be lowered by about 25%.
Plant sterols can be used alongside cholesterol lowering medication such as statins
Studies have shown that products containing plant sterols are safe however they should not replace cholesterol-lowering medications prescribed by your doctor. However even if you are on cholesterol medication, such as statins or fibrates, plant sterols can lower your LDL cholesterol even more - in fact, because the approaches lower cholesterol in different ways, their combined effect is cumulative.
We always recommend that you consult your doctor for advice that’s specific to you.
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.