Many nutrients are known to be good for the heart. Among the best known are phytosterols. Phytosterols have been part of the human diet for thousands of years as components of vegetables, fruit, legumes and other plant-based foods. Their hypocholesterolemic effects are recognized. This article explains what phytosterols are and the beneficial role they play in various 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 and play an important role there, similar to 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 sterols that regulate which sterols can enter your body from the gut. Only tiny amounts of phytosterols pass, compared to about 55% of cholesterol.
Phytosterols: high concentrations in vegetable oils
Many healthy plant-based foods, including nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, contain significant amounts of phytosterols. It has been suggested that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, who ate plant-rich diets, consumed large amounts of phytosterols. However, compared to modern diets, this is not entirely true.
Vegetable oils are very rich in phytosterols. Because these oils are added to many processed foods, getting the full dietary intake of phytosterols is perhaps 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. In addition, phytosterols are added to margarines, which are then described as “lowering cholesterol” and are said to help prevent heart disease. This is another claim that needs to be proven.
The beneficial effects of phytosterols on heart health
It is a well-documented fact that phytosterols can lower cholesterol levels. Taking 2-3 grams of phytosterols daily for 3-4 weeks can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by about 10%. This effect is particularly effective for people with high cholesterol, whether or not they are taking cholesterol-lowering statins. Scientists believe phytosterols work by competing with the same enzymes as cholesterol in your gut and preventing cholesterol absorption. Although high cholesterol is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, it probably doesn’t cause it.
Phytosterols: Possible cancer prevention
In addition, some scientific studies suggest that phytosterols may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. In fact, human studies show that people who consume the most phytosterols have a lower risk of stomach, lung, breast, and ovarian cancer. Additionally, some animal studies suggest that phytosterols may have anti-cancer 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 means there is still a lack of scientific explanations that prove the causal relationship between phytosterols and cancer prevention. Further research is therefore required.
Efficacy and safety of plant stanols and sterols in controlling blood cholesterol levels
Plant sterols and gastric cancer risk: a case-control study in Uruguay
The risk of ovarian cancer in humans is related to dietary intake of selected nutrients, phytochemicals and food groups
* Presse Santé strives to convey health knowledge in a language accessible to all. In NO CASE can the information given replace the advice of a doctor.
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