Benefits of Plant Sterols
There appear to be many benefits of plant sterols, but the supplements have only been shown to be effective for one use -- lowering cholesterol levels. Some clinical research suggests that plant sterols may be beneficial for relieving symptoms of an enlarged prostate, but they do not appear to shrink the prostate.
Plant sterols are cholesterol-like compounds found in plant-based foods. Because it would be difficult to get enough plant sterols to achieve any medicinal benefit through the diet, many products now contain added plant sterols. Such foods are known as "functional foods" and include margarines, spreads, juices, and many other products. Some dietary supplements also contain plant sterols.
Plant sterols are best known for their ability to lower cholesterol. This benefit has been so thoroughly studied that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows products that contain plant sterols (that meet certain qualifications) to carry a health claim stating that such products can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Many plant sterol functional foods are designed to replace foods that are high in cholesterol, saturated fats, or trans fats, such as butter or margarine. Often, these plant sterol products are lower in fat, trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, and calories, and may have additional beneficial components added (such as omega-3 fatty acids).
While most people take plant sterol products for heart health, some people take plant sterols for other uses as well (uses for which there is little scientific evidence). These less-valid uses of plant sterols include:
- Treating gallstones
- Enhancing sexual performance
- Boosting the immune system
- Treating the common cold and the flu
- Treating asthma
- Relieving menopause symptoms
- Helping with hair loss or baldness.
Although plant sterols probably work for high cholesterol (and possibly even for an enlarged prostate), there is not enough scientific evidence to recommend plant sterols for any of the other uses (see Do Plant Sterols Work? for more information). Research shows that plant sterols can lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol ("bad cholesterol"), without having any effect on HDL cholesterol ("good cholesterol"). For an enlarged prostate, research suggests that some plant sterols can help relieve enlarged prostate symptoms but do not seem to shrink the prostate.