Sterol: Benefits, Side Effects, Dosage, and Interactions

Sterols help lower cholesterol, treat cancer and prevent heart attacks.

Sterol supplement

Thanit Weerawan 

As a natural medicine, sterols can combat LDL (otherwise known as "bad") cholesterol, which may help prevent heart disease and heart attacks in some people. Sterols come from a group of substances made in plants. They look and act like cholesterol, so when they are present in your bloodstream, your body is prompted to make less of its own cholesterol.

Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol to properly function, as it helps regulate biological processes and reinforce the architecture of cell membranes. However, too much cholesterol can harm your health, so plant-based sterols can help you keep your cholesterol levels in check.

You can find sterols naturally in foods such as nuts, grains, legumes, fruits, seeds, and oils. Because of their powerful health benefits, manufacturers also add them to processed food products such as margarine, cereal, and juices to make them more marketable to health-conscious consumers. 

Health Benefits 

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) gave sterols the “health claim” status because they are scientifically proven to provide health benefits. Because of such a claim, manufacturers can market products containing sterols as "heart-healthy foods."

A few of the health benefits sterols provide include the following:

Lowering Cholesterol in Statin Users

In a systematic review and meta-analysis published in Scientific Reports, researchers found that people who took statins to reduce cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks, experienced significant reductions in total and LDL cholesterol levels when participating in a sterol-enriched diet than those who took statins alone. 

Lowering Cholesterol Metabolism

Sterols in moderate to high doses can positively alter entire-body cholesterol metabolism, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In a placebo-controlled trial, 18 adults received a sterol-deficient diet plus beverages supplemented with 0, 400, or 2,000 milligrams of sterols per day for four weeks. Results showed that those with moderate (an average of 459 milligrams) and high (2,059 milligrams) intake of sterols experienced a favorable impact on cholesterol metabolism.

Researchers stated that people can obtain a moderate sterol intake of 459 milligrams per day without needing supplementation as long as they follow a healthy diet. Meaning, you can lower your cholesterol by simply eating heart-healthy meals.

Lowering LDL Cholesterol

Drinking sterol-fortified juice can lower LDL levels, according to a study from the University of California Davis and published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. In this study, 72 healthy participants ages 20 to 73 with slight elevations in cholesterol levels were asked to follow their normal diet, but add a cup of juice with breakfast and dinner.

Half of the group drank a sterol-fortified orange juice, and the other half drank non-fortified orange juice by the same manufacturer. Researchers took blood tests before and after the experimental period to examine total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Results showed that the group who drank the sterol-fortified orange juice experienced a 7.2% decrease in total cholesterol and a 12.4% decrease in LDL cholesterol as compared to the regular orange juice-drinking group. 

Possible Side Effects

Consuming sterols is generally safe and is found to have little to no side effects. Some people experience diarrhea, especially if they consume an excess amount of sterols. Anyone with the following conditions should watch their intake, however:

  • Pregnancy
  • Nursing
  • Fat storage disease. If you have the fat-storage disease called sitosterolemia, sterols can build up in the blood and tissue and elevate your chances of a heart attack. 

Dosage and Preparation

The efficacy of sterols is so impactful that the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends people with high cholesterol eat at least 2 grams of sterols each day. Supplementation should occur only in individuals who need to lower their total and LDL cholesterol levels due to high cholesterol or are at risk of a cardiovascular event, according to the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. You should speak with your medical professional first before consuming a sterol supplement until more long-term studies are performed to ensure supplements are safe for anyone to use. 

You shouldn’t use sterol-enhanced food alone to lower your cholesterol. Instead, eating a healthy diet, following an exercise program, and avoiding smoking will provide more results than a sterol-heavy diet. 

What to Look For

Many nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils naturally contain sterols, but only in small amounts. To up your intake, look for "sterol" on the ingredient label. Often manufacturers will tout their heart-healthy foods in big fonts on the label, as the FDA allows them to do so.

You can also look on the label for sterol's other names:

  • Plant sterols
  • Plant sterol esters
  • Vegetable oil sterol esters
  • Beta-sitosterols
  • Campesterols
  • Stigmasterols
  • Phytosterols

Foods often fortified with sterol include margarine, orange juice, milk, and bread. You also don't need to consume much to meet the daily requirements. A tablespoon of sterol-fortified margarine on a slice of sterol-enriched bread will provide the total amount needed for the day.

Other Questions

Does taking sterols lower the risk of heart disease?
Research shows that sterols can lower LDL cholesterol levels. However, cholesterol is only one of many factors that determine your risk of heart disease. Some studies support the idea that sterols can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, while others show little to no effect. You should follow a healthy lifestyle to best help prevent heart disease.

What can you eat to get the best sterol-enriched diet possible?
You can try incorporating the following into your daily diet:

  • Vegetable oils
  • Wheat germ
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Almonds
  • Pistachio nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Berries

Eating a variety of colors will provide you a healthy mix of necessary vitamins and minerals as well.

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Article Sources
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