Phytosterols (referred to as plant sterol and stanol esters) are a group of naturally occurring compounds found in plant cell membranes. Because phytosterols are structurally similar to the body’s cholesterol, when they are consumed they compete with cholesterol for absorption in the digestive system. As a result, cholesterol absorption is blocked, and blood cholesterol levels reduced. (1)
Thus, phytosterols are mainly found in vegetables oils but smaller amounts are also present in nuts, legumes, grains, cereals, wood pulp and leaves. It was reported that phytosterols are found in all plant foods but the highest concentrations are found in unrefined plant oils, including vegetables, nuts and olive oils . Humans can not synthesis phytosterols, therefore all phytosterols in human blood and tissues are derived from diet, whereas cholesterol in human blood and tissues is derived from the diet and endogenous cholesterols synthesis. (2)
As part of a heart-healthy eating plan, consuming phytosterols in recommended quantities has been shown to lower total cholesterol up to 10 percent and LDL or “bad” cholesterol up to 14 percent. This reduction is in addition to other cholesterol-lowering strategies you may have initiated, such as eating more heart healthfully or taking a cholesterol-lowering statin. The effectiveness of phytosterols is so strong that The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends people with high cholesterol consume 2 grams of phytosterols each day.
Cancer Protection Benefits – Phytosterols have also been found to help protect against the development of cancer. The July 2009 issue of the” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition” offers encouraging news in the fight against cancer. Researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada report that there is evidence that phytosterols help prevent ovarian, breast, stomach and lung cancer. Phytosterols do this by preventing the production of cancer cells, stopping the growth and spread of cells that are already in existence and actually encouraging the death of cancer cells. Their high anti-oxidant levels are believed to be one way phytosterols help fight cancer. An anti-oxidant is a compound that fights free radical damage, which is negative effects on the body produced by cells that are unhealthy.(3)
There is scientific evidence to support the fact that phytosterols and their derivatives have several biological activities which promote the health of animals, humans and micro-organisms with only few adverse effects, such as occur in phytosterolemia, a rare genetic disorder. These health benefits include reduction of plasma total and LDLcholesterol levels, which decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases; anti-inflammatory activities; prevention of colon, breast and prostate cancers, and treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia. Therefore, regular consumption of plant sterols and stanols in natural foods not exceeding 3 g/day is considered healthy to man and animals.
Skin Protection Benefits – A lesser known benefit of phytosterols involves skin care. One of the contributing factors in the aging of the skin is the breakdown and loss of collagen — the main component in connective skin tissue — and sun exposure is a major contributor to the problem. As the body ages, it is not able to produce collagen as it once did. The German medical journal “Der Hautarzt” reports a study in which various topical preparations were tested on skin for 10 days. The topical treatment that showed anti-aging benefits to the skin was the one that contained phytosterols and other natural fats. It is reported that phytosterols not only stopped the slow-down of collagen production that can be caused by the sun, it actually encouraged new collagen production.
Always tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a dietary supplement. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash