Benefits and Risks
According to one definition, the word "supplement" means "something added to complete a thing, to extend or strengthen the whole."
And that's just what supplements are capable of doing -- strengthening your efforts to lower your cholesterol and improve your overall heart health.
Supplements serve different purposes. Some make blood platelets less sticky, reducing your risk of artery-blocking clots; some prevent the oxidation of LDL, making it less likely to lead to plaque; others help minimize certain side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs; still others act as alternatives to prescription drugs. Some supplements won't be right for you. Others will. Supplements can be very beneficial but you must be careful because, like any drug, all supplements pose potential risks. Before you start taking any, check with your doctor first. In addition, keep the following important advice in mind:
"Natural" doesn't mean "safe"
Just because a supplement may be natural doesn't mean taking it is completely without risk. Many, if not all, supplements have the potential to interact with prescription or over-the-counter drugs, cause harmful side effects if taken inappropriately, or even make existing medical conditions worse. That's why it's critical that you tell your health care providers about any supplements you take. In a University of Michigan study one-third of the patients taking supplements were using ones that could interact with their heart medications. Be especially cautious if you're taking blood-thinning medication like aspirin, Coumadin (warfarin), or Plavix (clopidogrel); many supplements, such as ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, vitamin E, fish oil, and coenzyme Q10, also have blood-thinning properties, and the combined effect could lead to dangerous bleeding.
Also, just because the label may say "natural" doesn't mean that supplements are any safer than pharmaceutical drugs. They still include chemicals that have an effect on your body; that's why they work. So don't exceed the recommended dose, and don't take any supplement longer than advised. If you are pregnant or nursing, be doubly sure to check with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Know What You're Getting
The FDA subjects prescription and over-the-counter drugs to rigorous testing and manufacturing standards, but vitamins, minerals, herbs, and enzymes don't have to be proven safe or effective before they're sold. In fact, there's no guarantee that the supplement you buy even contains what the label says it contains. So one brand of coenzyme Q10, for instance, could have very different properties than another.
To get the facts, rely on ConsumerLab.com, which independently tests supplements and provides information on hundreds of brands on its Web site, www.consumerlab.com. (Some of the information on the site costs money to view.) On product labels look for "USP," which stands for U.S. Pharmacopeia. The USP is a nonprofit organization that promotes public health by establishing standards to ensure the quality of medicines and other health care technologies. If a label says USP it means the product meets the standards for measures such as strength and purity of ingredients and degree of absorption by the body. If a label doesn't say USP, however, it doesn't necessarily mean the product is inferior. For some supplements, there are no USP standards. And some brand-name manufacturers, for whatever reason, choose not to perform the tests necessary to garner USP approval.
Also, look for products produced under good manufacturing practices (GMP). These are regulations that describe the methods, equipment, facilities, and controls required for producing quality products. A trade group called the National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA) operates a GMP certification program that includes inspections of manufacturing facilities to determine whether products meet GMP standards. Once certified, manufacturers can use the NNFA's GMP seal on their products.
Supplements, Not Cure-Alls
In the next few years you're bound to hear more and more about natural alternatives for lowering cholesterol and protecting the heart. But before you jump on any bandwagons, take heed: No supplement is a substitute for the lifestyle changes, particularly good eating habits. The fact is that scientists will probably never be able to duplicate the complex effects and myriad health benefits of foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with a pill. And of course, lowering your cholesterol with supplements such as guggul while eating steak and ice cream with abandon, or taking hawthorn or CoQ10 to lower your blood pressure while doing nothing to alleviate the stress caused by your nerve-racking job, won't do your heart or your arteries much good in the end.