The researchers studied patients who already were eating a heart-healthy diet and taking statin drugs to control cholesterol. The addition of plant sterols helped further lower total cholesterol and contributed to a nearly 10 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol.

The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that those with elevated cholesterol eat foods containing plant sterols as a way to lower cardiovascular risk, but many sterol-containing foods are inconvenient for some patients.

Structurally similar to cholesterol, plant sterols can reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the gut by competing with cholesterol to get absorbed and transported into the body. When consumed in the diet, sterols are known to lower cholesterol levels, but sterols are not readily absorbed in the intestine unless they have been dissolved in something that the intestine can easily absorb. Because sterols are not water-soluble, past strategies have involved dissolving them in fat.

To deliver the sterols in pill form, the plant compounds were combined with a substance called lecithin and compressed into tablets. When mixed with lecithin, the normally insoluble sterols are able to dissolve in water and get absorbed in the intestine.

The researchers studied 26 patients who were following the American Heart Association Heart Healthy Diet and taking statin drugs to control cholesterol. Over six weeks, half were randomly assigned to take inactive placebo pills while the rest took sterol tablets. All patients ingested four tablets, twice daily with meals, while continuing to take statin drugs.

After treatment, those who took the sterol pills averaged a 9 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol and a 6 percent decline in total cholesterol. And the team found that the higher the LDL before the study began, the greater the drop in the bad cholesterol.; Source: Washington University in St. Louis