What Are Plant-Sterol Supplements?

Melanie Smeltzer
Melanie Smeltzer

Plant sterols are naturally produced compounds that occur in a number of plants and are thought to help lower cholesterol. Despite the fact that these compounds may be found in several foods, many people find it more convenient to take them in supplement form. Plant-sterol supplements typically contain extracts from a number of plants, such as soy or pine trees, and can come in the form of pills or fortified dietary products like spreadable margarine. Although some evidence has suggested that plant sterols help lower cholesterol, it has not been shown that they may be useful for other ailments. Additionally, there has been debate over whether or not large quantities of these compounds are safe.

Widely available in food sources such as whole grains, seeds, and nuts, and certain fruits and vegetables like apples and broccoli, plant sterols form a common part of a healthy diet. Despite this, many prefer to take supplements as a way to boost their current intake of these natural compounds. Taking plant-sterol supplements in pill form is considered one of the most convenient methods. These pills often contain vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn, or sea buckthorn. Another form of supplementation is the dietary addition of certain fortified foods, such as energy bars, juices, yogurt drinks, and spreadable margarine.

Best known for treating high cholesterol, plant-sterol supplements have become a favorite natural product for those trying to keep their cholesterol levels low. These supplements are said to work by inhibiting the absorption of dietary cholesterol in the small intestine. Unlike many natural supplements, plant sterols have been so carefully studied that the Food and Drug Administration has allowed certain supplement makers to claim that their products may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Although these compounds have not been thoroughly investigated for treating other conditions, some still believe that they are beneficial in treating complaints such as the flu, asthma, gallstones, and hair loss.

Though plant-sterol supplements are typically made of healthy products, they may still come with certain risks. For instance, some believe that an over-abundance of plant sterols can actually damage the circulatory system. Additionally, these compounds may have an adverse affect on certain male hormones, such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone, which may result in a lack of libido and erectile dysfunction. Other side effects can include constipation or diarrhea, heartburn, indigestion, and nausea.

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