Many nutrients are known to be good for the heart. Among the best known are phytosterols. For millennia, phytosterols have been part of the human diet as components of vegetables, fruits, legumes and other plant foods. Their hypocholesterolemic effects are recognized. This article explains what phytosterols are and their beneficial role in several aspects of health, including heart health.
What are phytosterols?
Phytosterols, or plant sterols, are a family of molecules related to cholesterol. They are found in the cell membranes of plants, where they play an important role, just like cholesterol in humans. The most common phytosterols in your diet are campesterol, sitosterol, and stigmasterol. Although humans have evolved to function with both cholesterol and phytosterols in their system, your body prefers cholesterol. In fact, we have two enzymes called sterolins that regulate which sterols can enter your body from the gut. Only tiny amounts of phytosterols pass through, compared to about 55% of cholesterol.
Phytosterols: high levels in vegetable oils
Many healthy plant foods, including nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and legumes, contain considerable amounts of phytosterols. It has been suggested that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, who had a plant-rich diet, consumed large amounts of phytosterols. However, compared to modern diets, this is not entirely true.
Vegetable oils are very rich in phytosterols. As these oils are added to many processed foods, total dietary intake of phytosterols is probably more important than ever. Grains also contain modest amounts of phytosterols and can be an important source for people who eat a lot of grains. Additionally, phytosterols are added to margarines, which are then labeled “cholesterol lowering” and claim to help prevent heart disease. This is yet another claim to be proven.
The Beneficial Impact of Phytosterols on Heart Health
It is a well documented fact that phytosterols can lower cholesterol levels. Consuming 2-3 grams of phytosterols daily for 3-4 weeks can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by about 10%. This action is particularly effective for people who have high cholesterol, whether or not they are taking cholesterol-lowering statins. Scientists believe that phytosterols work by competing with the same enzymes as cholesterol in your gut, preventing cholesterol absorption. Although high cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, it probably does not cause it.
Phytosterols: Potential Cancer Prevention
In addition, some scientific studies suggest that phytosterols may reduce your risk of developing certain cancers. Indeed, human studies show that people who consume the most phytosterols have a lower risk of stomach, lung, breast and ovarian cancer. In addition, some animal studies also indicate that phytosterols may have anticancer properties, helping to slow the growth and spread of tumors.
At the moment, the only human studies that support these hypotheses are observational in nature. That is to say that there is still a lack of scientific explanations demonstrating the causal link between phyotsterols and cancer prevention. Further research is therefore needed.
Efficacy and safety of plant stanols and sterols in the management of blood cholesterol levels
Plant sterols and risk of stomach cancer: a case-control study in Uruguay
Risk of human ovarian cancer is related to dietary intake of selected nutrients, phytochemicals and food groups
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