High cholesterol: The scent of a solution

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GUELPH, ONTARIO, CANADA

People with high cholesterol don'T have a lot of options: They can exercise and follow a heart-healthy diet, but if that doesn't work--or they're unwilling to stick with the regimen--they're likely to be put on expensive prescription drugs. Now researchers have discovered what might be an intermediate step: fish oil and garlic supplements.

Fish oil enjoyed brief celebrity a while back as one of the few substances that can cut levels of triglycerides, a fat in the blood that raises the risk of heart disease. But the oil's status fell when studies showed that it also raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol. Biochemist Bruce Holub at the University of Guelph has a novel solution: Couple fish oil with garlic, which some studies suggest lowers bad cholesterol.

He asked 50 men with slightly elevated cholesterol levels to take daily doses of either 12 grams of fish oil, 900 milligrams of garlic, or the two together. After three months Holub retested the men's blood. He found that LDL had dropped in men taking only garlic and triglycerides had sunk in those taking fish oil. In the group taking fish oil and garlic, however, both dropped: LDL by 10 percent and triglycerides by 34 percent. Plus, high-density lipoprotein, or good cholesterol, stayed even or went up in most of the men.

Overall, Holub estimates, the changes were enough to produce at least a 20 percent reduction in heart disease risk. That's impressive. But before he'll advise anyone to stock up on supplements, he wants to repeat the study with a larger group--especially because some garlic studies have failed to show the same positive effect on LDL.

Nonetheless, Holub calls the early evidence exciting. "Fish oil and garlic target the problem fats in the blood," he says. "This could be a cheaper alternative than drugs for people with moderately high cholesterol."

PHOTO (COLOR): FOOD RICH IN CHOLESTEROL

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Vital Signs by Benedict Carey, John Hastings, Bob Holmes, and Rachele Kanigel.

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