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5 ways to lower your cholesterol naturally

INSIDER logoINSIDER 8/10/2020 insider@insider.com (Kelly Burch)
Even a brisk walk can help lower your cholesterol, without medication. Maridav/Shutterstock © Maridav/Shutterstock Even a brisk walk can help lower your cholesterol, without medication. Maridav/Shutterstock

About one-third of American adults have high cholesterol. This can clog your arteries and increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke. 

There are a few different measurements for cholesterol. You'll actually want higher levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL) — the good cholesterol — and lower levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL), triglycerides, and total cholesterol. 

That's because HDL helps get rid of LDL cholesterol and can lower your overall levels. Here's what healthy cholesterol levels should look like: 

a screenshot of a cell phone: Yuqing Liu/Insider © Yuqing Liu/Insider Yuqing Liu/Insider

If your cholesterol is too high, there are many lifestyle changes your doctor will recommend before or alongside medication. Here's how to lower your cholesterol naturally. 

1. Improve your diet 

Eating a heart-healthy diet can help control your cholesterol levels. To lower LDL and raise HDL levels, you should eat the following foods: 

  • Fruits and vegetables like leafy greens and avocados 
  • Lean protein like chicken breast or fish
  • Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa 

Both the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet focus on these foods and can help lower your cholesterol. For example, a 2020 study published in the British Medical Journal found that following the Mediterranean diet for eight weeks lowered LDL cholesterol levels in obese patients. 

Moreover, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that eating fish twice a week and eating "plenty of fruits and vegetables" can lower LDL cholesterol over 12 weeks. 

In addition, eating foods that contain cholesterol — like eggs — isn't as bad as eating foods that are high in saturated fats, says Kevin Ferentz, MD, chairman of the department of Family Medicine and lead physician at GBMC Health Partners Primary Care in Towson, Maryland. 

"One thing we have learned recently is that eating foods that are high in cholesterol – such as eggs – does not actually raise your cholesterol," he says. "But eating foods that are high in fat – especially saturated fats and trans fats – can raise your cholesterol, especially LDL."

Read more about the best and worst foods you can eat if you want to lower cholesterol

2. Get more physical activity 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exercise is an important way to lower cholesterol. That's because exercise can raise HDL levels, Ferentz says. 

For example, a 2007 scientific review of 25 studies found that people who exercise, even without diet changes or medical intervention, increased HDL levels by 2.53 mg/dL. 

Overall, Ferentz says that for people trying to lower cholesterol naturally, you should get the normally recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week. And every little bit can help. 

"Any exercise – even taking a brisk walk at lunchtime – has health benefits," Ferentz says. 

For more information, learn about the best exercises for heart health

3. Try to lose weight 

Weight loss can have a direct impact on LDL cholesterol levels. For example, each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of weight loss is associated with a 0.8 mg/dL drop in LDL levels, according to a 2017 scientific review published in the British Medical Journal. 

A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women who lost about 8% of their weight by eating a diet high in healthy fats, including walnuts, improved their LDL levels. 

"This weight loss may not put these women at their ideal weight, but it made a significant reduction in their risk of cardiovascular and other diseases," Cheryl Rock, PhD, principal investigator of the study, said in a press release. "This level of weight loss is achievable and can have a dramatic impact on their quality of life."

Ferentz emphasized that a relatively small weight loss can have a big impact on cholesterol. "Losing as little as 10 pounds can significantly lower your total cholesterol," he says. 

Read more about how to lose weight safely and keep it off

4. Don't smoke 

Smoking can increase your LDL levels, while also decreasing HDL levels. For example, a small 2018 study with 57 people published in The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine found that the LDL levels of long-term smokers were significantly higher when compared to non-smokers. 

And it's not just cigarettes that can be a risk factor — a 2019 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research found that smoking a water pipe (hookah) was also associated with increased LDL levels. 

Quitting smoking, on the other hand, can improve HDL levels. A 2012 study published in the American Heart Journal found that HDL increased 5.2% over the course of one year in people who quit smoking. 

There is little research on marijuana and cholesterol, but Ferentz suspects the effects are the same. You should avoid smoking marijuana if you want to lower your cholesterol, he says. 

Read more about the early research on how marijuana may affect the heart

5. Limit alcohol 

The American Heart Association says that alcohol consumption should be limited or eliminated for optimal heart health. Ferentz recommends limiting alcohol to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. 

Moderate levels of alcohol consumption may improve HDL levels — and having some red wine might actually be good for your heart. But drinking too much alcohol can negatively affect your heart health. 

Binge drinking is especially harmful: a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that adult men who binge drank (defined as having 5 or more drinks in a row) had higher LDL levels than those who did not. 

Read more about how alcohol affects the heart

Takeaways 

Overall, eating healthier, exercising more, and losing weight can all help lower cholesterol without the use of medication, according to a 2013 scientific review published in Current Cardiology Reviews.  

Though it's possible to lower your cholesterol levels naturally, it can be difficult, Ferentz says. 

"Unfortunately, many people are unable to make the lifestyle changes required to lower their cholesterol," he says. Losing weight is particularly effective, he says, but certainly not easy. 

If you're not able to lower your cholesterol naturally, talk to your doctor about medications that can help lower cholesterol, such as statins

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