If you've been told that you have high cholesterol, you'll want to make changes in your diet and lifestyle to help lower it. You no doubt have questions, like how long will it take to lower your cholesterol? And are there ways to do this naturally, without medication?
The amount of time it takes to lower your cholesterol can vary, but aiming for changes to your numbers over a six-month time period is a realistic goal, says Grace Derocha, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Six months gives your body time to achieve lower cholesterol numbers and form newer, healthier habits that move your cholesterol numbers in the right direction, she says.
Changes you can make can help reduce your overall cholesterol, your LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) and triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood) and can help raise your HDL (good cholesterol).
Choosing a Heart-Healthy Diet
One major factor that affects how quickly you lower your cholesterol is what you eat. To help reach your cholesterol lowering goals more quickly, consider these factors:
Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna and mackerel, omega-3s can help lower your triglycerides, according to the Mayo Clinic. The American Heart Association advises eating 8 ounces of non-fried fatty fish each week, which can be done over two or three separate servings. If you can't eat fish, then walnuts, almonds and flaxseeds are other alternate sources for omega-3 fatty acids.
Soluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps lower LDL cholesterol, according to Mayo Clinic. Most Americans don't get the recommended 25 to 40 grams of total fiber (soluble and insoluble fiber) they should be eating every day, Derocha says. One easy way to get more fiber is by eating oatmeal, which she describes as the "street sweeper" of the digestive tract, getting rid of substances you don't need while at the same time boosting your fiber intake and helping to lower bad cholesterol. One serving of oatmeal typically has 4 grams of fiber.
Sugar and carbohydrates. Aim to lower your intake. People who eat too much sugar and too many carbohydrates tend to have higher triglycerides, Derocha says. Replace some of these with more fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts and you'll likely see your bad cholesterol go down and your good cholesterol go up.
What About Supplements?
You may have seen ads for supplements that claim that they can magically reduce your cholesterol. Derocha cautions that there's little reliable evidence to back such claims. Instead, she encourages people to stick to real food for better health and to lower cholesterol.
However, if your regular diet can't incorporate all that's needed to reduce your bad cholesterol and raise your good cholesterol — which may be the case if you have food allergies, for instance — then talk to your doctor or registered dietitian about fish oil or fiber supplements.
These two types of supplements can help fill in the gaps that food otherwise would meet. If you are incorporating more fiber into your diet through a supplement or even food, drink plenty of water to help avoid constipation, Derocha says.
How Weight Loss and Exercise Can Help
If you're overweight or obese and have high cholesterol, then weight loss can potentially help lower your numbers. People who are overweight with high cholesterol can improve their numbers by losing 3 to 5 percent of their body weight, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says.
Even that small percentage of weight loss can lower your LDL cholesterol and raise your HDL numbers, according to the institute. If you weigh 200 pounds, then a 5 percent body weight loss is 10 pounds. Aiming to lose 10 pounds over six months is a very realistic goal, Derocha says.
Adding regular exercise to your daily routine also can help. Not only does exercise help with weight loss, and ultimately cholesterol improvements, but cardio and resistance training (such as using weights) help to boost muscle mass, increase your metabolism and provide a host of other health benefits. In addition, the NHLBI notes that studies have found that being physically active helps lower LDL and triglycerides and raise HDL.