It’s not unusual for a woman to have elevated cholesterol levels during pregnancy, but when these levels skyrocket above 280 mg/dl, both her and her fetus are at risk. The condition, known as supraphysiological hypercholesterolemia, has been shown to cause fatty streaks in the arteries of infants, along with high cholesterol and high triglycerides early in life. Offspring may also suffer from cardiovascular complications as they grow older.
Putting pregnant women on cholesterol-lowering statins isn’t an option, as statins cause fetal abnormalities. Alternative treatment options are few and far between, but University of Buffalo researchers are hoping to find that plant sterols (phytosterols) are Mother Nature’s solution to safely lowering high cholesterol levels in pregnant women.
The Potential of Plant Sterols
The plant sterol study, led by Todd Rideout, assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at University of Buffolo, is still in the preliminary stages, but researchers are hoping to find a natural cholesterol-lowering solution for both mother and unborn child. For this reason, researchers are turning their attention to phytosterols, which have been proven to effectively lower cholesterol.
Rideout explains: “Phytosterols look very similar to the cholesterol that’s found in meat and dairy products. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But they’re metabolized in our bodies very differently. Plant sterols actually out-compete cholesterol to be absorbed into your blood. That’s how they lower cholesterol.”
If only it were as easy as eating plant sterols and reaping the benefits. Although they’re found in vegetables, the amount we consume is too little to help lower cholesterol in individuals already diagnosed with high cholesterol. We’d need to consume at least 2 grams of plant sterols a day to see benefit, but Rideout estimates that vegetarians get at most 1 gram of plant sterols a day, and meat eaters a mere 300-500 grams a day.
Researchers have set out to test the efficacy and safety of plant sterols as a natural cholesterol-lowering solution, but before they advance to trials on pregnant women, they are testing on rats and hamsters.
“There’s a lot of data showing negative consequences in the offspring of mothers who are fed high-cholesterol, high-fat diets,” he adds. “That’s pretty well established. But very little work has looked at this question of what if we feed the mothers something beneficial, such as phytosterols?”
To answer this question, Rideout and his team are feeding two groups of mice/hamsters a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet, but one group is also being fed added plant sterols.
“We’re comparing the blood lipid levels when the offspring are born to see if the offspring from mothers who were fed phytosterols during pregnancy have a more beneficial lipid profile,” Rideout said.
The potential of plant sterols is promising, and we’re keeping our eyes peeled for progress.