While you may have heard of phytosterols as healthy for you, you may not be familiar with what they are and how they work in the body. Phytosterols have become a bit of a buzzword in the health and nutrition industry, so it’s important that you understand how they work and if they are good for you.
Phytosterols are sterols and stenols that are found in the cell membranes of plants—especially in plants that have high oil contents, like nuts, seeds, and legumes. Vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are also high in phystosterols, as are fruits such as berries and oranges. Vegetable oils are also high in phytosterols.
You can think of phytosterols as the plant version of cholesterol, which is a waxy substance we both ingest through foods from animal sources (meat and dairy products) and that our bodies produce in order to regulate hormone production and use in our cells.
Unlike cholesterol, our bodies don’t produce phytosterols, and we don’t absorb most of the phytosterols we consume through the foods we eat. On the other hand, our bodies produce all the cholesterol we need for hormone production, and our guts also absorb about 55% of the cholesterol we consume.
Do Phytosterols Lower Cholesterol?
Modern medicine labels the two types of cholesterol in our bodies as “good” and “bad.” The good kind of cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), carries excess cholesterol to the liver, which then uses bile to break the cholesterol down and excrete it from the body through your feces. Having high HDL numbers is a good indicator of heart health.
The bad kind of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), can cause plaque buildup in the arteries if levels remain high over time. This plaque buildup can slow blood flow, causing heart disease, or stop blood flow altogether, leading to a heart attack or stroke.
Phytosterol molecules are very similar—almost identical, in some cases—to cholesterol molecules, and studies have documented that phytosterols block cholesterol from being absorbed. They do this by competing with cholesterol for the same gut enzymes, which reduces how much cholesterol is absorbed into the body. For those with high LDL levels, phytosterols can help inhibit the body from absorbing too much cholesterol and, therefore, lower blood LDL levels. Lower LDL levels support heart health, so many people advocate using phytosterols as a way to support healthy heart function.
Other Possible Benefits of Phytosterols
Animal studies have shown that phytosterols seem to reduce the risk of developing stomach, lung, ovarian, and breast cancers as well as slow the growth of cancer cells and tumors.
While observational studies seem to indicate the same benefit for humans, there are no studies that provide any definitive proof that phytosterols actually do decrease risk for these cancers in humans.
If a Little Bit of Phytosterols Is Good, Is a Lot Better?
Our bodies definitely prefer cholesterol to phytosterols, but we don’t need very many phytosterols to see a reduction in LDL cholesterol levels. However, just because phytosterols are helpful in small quantities, it isn’t safe to assume that large quantities will be even more beneficial.
If you are eating a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy fats, you’re probably getting all the phytosterols you need.
Problems can arise if you eat a lot of processed and junk foods. Food manufacturers often use phytosterol-rich vegetable oils in many processed foods, like margarine. Because of the phytosterol content, the product may then be labeled as “heart healthy” because of the positive effects of phytosterols on LDL cholesterol levels. Studies seem to indicate, however, that a high phytosterol level can actually increase the risk of heart disease, but that may also be due to the consumption of processed foods that are loaded with phytosterol-rich vegetable oils along with refined sugars, refined flours, salts, fats, and other additives.
Avoiding processed and junk foods while eating whole foods and using supplements made from whole foods will not only give you all the phytosterols you need, but the combination of nutrients naturally available in whole foods works in a positive, synergistic way.
The Bottom Line on Phytosterols
- Phystosterols are sterols and stenols produced in plants like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
- Phytosterol consumption has been linked to reduced levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol).
- In animal studies, phytosterol consumption has also been linked to lowered risk of stomach, lung, breast, and ovarian cancers as well as slowed tumor growth. This relationship has not been definitively proven in humans, however.
- If you are eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, you are likely getting enough phytosterols to provide health benefits.
- Processed foods are high in phytosterols because processed foods are often made with phytosterol-rich vegetable oils. High phytosterol levels have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, but this may also be because processed foods contain refined flours, sugars, fats, and salts that have been shown to be very bad for you and your heart.
Phystosterols in Supplements
We’ve seen that you’ll get all the phytosterols you need by consistently eating a diet packed with whole foods and avoiding processed and junk foods. But life, work schedules, and stress get in the way of even our best intentions. Taking quality supplements can be a great way to give your body a bit of a boost in its efforts to maintain a healthy equilibrium.
While there really isn’t a need to take phytosterols as a supplement by themselves, phytosterols work well when combined with a beneficial mix of other quality ingredients in helping to maintain healthy LDL cholesterol levels or to give support for overall health as we age.
Nature’s Sunshine products that contain phytosterols are all formulated to provide maximum support through the use of quality ingredients. We utilize the benefits of phytosterols in Cholester-Reg II® and our popular IN.FORM Metabolic Age Support shakes. If you are interested in learning more about the IN.FORM program, please check out our products page.