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Is Chitosan an Effective Low Cholesterol Supplement?

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Updated December 19, 2012

Chitosan is commonly found in health food stores in the form of a supplement, but it is actually a derivative of chitin. Chitin is a major component of the hard shell that crustaceans, such as shrimp and crabs, possess.

While chitosan has a reputation for causing weight loss, it has also been proposed as a beneficial anemia treatment and sleep promoter. During some studies of chitosan, it was also revealed that participants had lowered cholesterol levels.

Does Chitosan Really Work?

Studies examining the cholesterol-lowering effects of chitosan have been mixed; some studies suggest that chitosan has the ability to lower cholesterol levels, whereas other studies reveal that chitosan may not be effective in lowering cholesterol at all. It is thought that chitosan works by preventing fat absorption into the bloodstream by binding to cholesterol and other lipids in the gastrointestinal tract. Studies examining the effectiveness of chitosan on cholesterol levels have been performed in animals, obese individuals, those with type II diabetes, people with high cholesterol, and healthy adults.

Although these studies involving chitosan are conflicting, it appears that chitosan may have cholesterol-lowering benefit in some individuals. In the studies that revealed lowered cholesterol levels, it appears that chitosan modestly affects all aspects of the lipid panel, although these results are highly variable. Most studies involving healthy people with no significant changes in lifestyle modifications do not reveal lowered cholesterol levels, with the exception of one study that resulted in a 6% decrease in total cholesterol levels and a 7% increase in HDL, or “good”, cholesterol levels.

The most cholesterol-lowering benefit of chitosan appears to be in obese individuals who are placed on a low-calorie diet (about 1,000 to 1,200 calories/day). In one study, these individuals lowered their total cholesterol levels by 25% following a combination of a low-calorie diet and chitosan. Since weight loss is an important component in lowering cholesterol, it is not known whether or not it was the chitosan or the weight loss that actually lowered cholesterol.

The doses of chitosan given in these studies also widely varied, ranging from 1,000 to 6,000 mg daily, usually given in divided doses with food.

Should You Take Chitosan To Lower Your Cholesterol Levels?

Because the studies regarding chitosan’s ability to lower cholesterol are mixed, you should probably look for other measures to lower your cholesterol levels -- such as soluble fiber, weight loss, and exercise -- before trying to lower your cholesterol with chitosan. Chitosan doesn’t appear to have any harsh side effects, but it can cause flatulence, constipation, and nausea. As with any natural product, make sure that you talk to your healthcare provider about taking chitosan before trying it in order to make sure that this supplement does not interact with any health conditions or medications you may be taking.

Sources:

Shields KM, Smock N, McQueen CE, et al. Chitosan for weight loss and cholesterol management. Am J Health Sys Pharm 2003;60:1310-1313.

Metso S, Ylitalo R, Nikkila M et al. The effect of long term microcrystalline chitosan therapy on plasma lipids and glucose concentrations in supbects with increased plasma total cholesterol. Eur J Clin Pharmacol 2003; 59:741-746.

Tapola NS, Lyyra ML, Kolehmainen RM, et al. Safety aspects and cholesterol-lowering efficacy of chitosan tablets. J Am Coll Nutr 2008;27:22-30.

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