4 ways to keep cholesterol levels in balance, naturally

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We are constantly reminded to watch our cholesterol levels. Interestingly enough, though, cholesterol plays a vital role in producing hormones, creating nerve tissue, and making bile acids and salts. So why the bad press? Americans live lifestyles that upset the natural balance of cholesterol.

There are two types of cholesterol that attract the most attention: high-density lipoproteins (HDL), the "good" cholesterol, and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), "bad" cholesterol. LDL carries cholesterol through the bloodstream to help build cells, but it leaves behind excess deposits called plaque which build up on the walls of the arteries and narrow them, making it harder for the heart to pump the blood. HDL removes excess deposits and helps get them excreted. The more LDL you have, the less HDL, and vice versa. What creates too much of the bad cholesterol? Usually a high-fat diet and not enough exercise. Most physicians recommend a total cholesterol level of 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood.

A low-fat diet with an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, plus regular exercise, helps decrease cholesterol levels. But sometimes that's not enough, and consumers turn to medication. Many of these medications carry serious side effects ranging from liver damage and depression to ulcers and impotence, so safer alternatives are being sought. Here are some of the most promising possibilities currently being studied.

#1 Have some Juice!
The health benefits from drinking red wine have been known for some time, but a University of Wisconsin study conducted on 15 patients with coronary heart disease indicated that the effects might be derived from the grape juice itself. After patients were given daily doses of purple grape juice, their vasodilation (ability of the arteries to open to allow better blood flow) improved almost three -- fold (from 2.2 percent to 6.4 percent).

#2 Stop and smell the clover
At the 10th annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society, Rodney J. Baber, M.D. presented a study he completed on a supplement made from red clover and its affects on blood cholesterol levels. It was concluded that the supplement had a significant and marked effect on raising HDL cholesterol.

#3 Soy to the world
Vegetarians have known it for years, but, recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed that eating soy foods, especially those high in isoflavones, can lead to dramatic drops in cholesterol levels. Research from Wake Forest University's School of Medicine saw significant decreases in people who ate soy protein daily for nine weeks. At 62 mg/day, LDL cholesterol dropped 6 percent. Those that had the highest cholesterol levels saw the greatest change with a 10 percent drop in LDL.

#4 Have some alfalfa
One cholesterol-lowering product being researched is a patented form of alfalfa -- esterin alfalfa saponin extract. Alfalfa contains fiber, vitamins, and other vital nutrients, and the saponin in the stalk and leaf has been shown to lower cholesterol. Several studies have been completed on this special processed alfalfa, and all have shown drops in cholesterol levels from 20 to 28 percent. Unlike other cholesterol medications which block LDL in the liver, this extract is said to work by blocking LDL in the stomach before it can enter the bloodstream. However, while plain old alfalfa is certainly good for you, it is this special patented formula that has a significant cholesterol-lowering effect.

Everybody needs cholesterol, but too much bad cholesterol can lead to problems -- even death. A combination of healthful eating, regular exercise, and the appropriate supplementation should keep cholesterol levels in check.

REFERENCES
Baber, Rodney J., M.D. et al. "The Effect of an Isoflavone Dietary Supplement on Serum Lipids, Forearm Bone Density and Endometrial Thickness in Post-Menopausal Women." Royal North Shore Hospital: Sydney, Australia. Paper presented at the 10th Annual Meeting of the North American Menopause Society. Sept. 1999.

Crouse, John III, MD, et al. "A Randomized Trial Comparing the Effect of Casein with that of Soy Protein Containing Varying Amounts of Isoflavones on Plasma Concentrations of Lipids and Lipoproteins," Archives of Internal Medicine 159: 2070-2076, Sept. 27, 1999.

Czeizel, Andrew MD, CSc, DSc. Clinical Control Study of the Effect of Esterin on Blood Lipid Parameters, paper for the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Control of Human Genetics/Teratology, New York, NY

Ilona, Csak, The Effect of Esterin on Hyperlipidemic Patients with Elevated Blood Lipid Parameters, Unpublished Study Conducted at Kutvolgyi Hospital, Budapest, Hungary, paper [missing text??]

Stein, James H. et al. "Purple Grape Juice Improves Endothelial Function and Reduces the Susceptibility of LDL Cholesterol to Oxidation in Patients with Coronary Artery Disease," Circulation 100:1050-1055, Aug-Nov 1999.

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By Tamra B. Orr

Tamra B. Orr has been a professional freelance writer for almost 20 years in the areas of health, nutrition, and child development. Tami lives in Warsaw, Indiana, with her four children and her husband.

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