Person walking with dog to lower cholesterol

How long does it take to lower cholesterol?

Medically reviewed on February 24, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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According to the CDC, over 38% of adults (ages 20 and older) and 7% of children (ages 6 to 19) have high cholesterol [1]. If you count yourself among this group of people, you’ve likely searched for ways to lower your cholesterol level and improve your health—and chances are, you’d like to do so as quickly as possible. But how long does it take to lower cholesterol?

The answer depends on the steps you take to lower your cholesterol levels. For those aiming to lower their cholesterol level through lifestyle changes alone, it may take several months or longer to see a change; in one review of studies, for example, researchers tracked the effects of plant-based diets over the course of several months to multiple years [14].

Those who take cholesterol-lowering medications could see results sooner, in as little as six weeks [20]. These two options aren’t mutually exclusive. For many, a combination of medications and lifestyle changes could result in a different timeline altogether.

Whichever path you take, know that reducing your cholesterol levels and maintaining them is a long-term pursuit—but one that can reduce your chance of having heart disease, strokes, a heart attack, and other fatal heart health conditions [1]. To determine which method may work best for you, we’ll share our guide on the timing, tools, and tips to lower cholesterol.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of waxy, fatty molecule found in all of your body’s cells, helping with everything from hormone production to cellular repair [2]. In your body, cholesterol can be obtained in two ways [2]:

  • Your liver, which creates enough cholesterol for your entire body
  • Your diet, through foods that contain cholesterol like meat, eggs, and dairy

Cholesterol reaches your cells through lipoproteins, which carry cholesterol through the bloodstream [2]. However, not all lipoproteins are created equal.

Typically, medical professionals divide cholesterol lipoproteins into two types—“good” and “bad.” While good kinds contain more proteins, bad cholesterol contains more artery-clogging lipids and are linked to heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks [2]. On a typical lipid panel, these different types of cholesterols combine to form your total cholesterol:

  • HDL (high density lipoprotein) – HDL is considered a “good” cholesterol, made of 45% proteins [3]. HDL helps facilitate cholesterol transport, ridding excess cholesterol in the bloodstream to be recycled in the liver [2]. The higher your HDL cholesterol, the more likely your other cholesterol levels are to be in a healthy range.
  • LDL (low density lipoprotein) – LDL is the primary form of “bad” cholesterol, consisting of 75% lipids and 25% proteins [4]. In excess amounts, LDL cholesterol can create fatty deposits along your blood vessels. Over time, these deposits can turn into plaque, a hardened matter that can constrict the arteries [2]. This can lead to conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, or even a stroke (if the plaque matter bursts and releases a clot) [2].
  • VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) – VLDL is another type of “bad” cholesterol, containing about 90% lipids [5]. The higher your VLDL cholesterol, the more likely you are to experience cholesterol-related risks like heart attacks or strokes [5]. In a cholesterol test, your VLDL and LDL cholesterol levels may be combined into your non-HDL cholesterol, which represents your overall “bad” cholesterol.
  • Triglycerides – These fatty acids are an essential source of energy for your body [6]. However, excessive triglycerides can boost your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, heart attack, or other conditions.

What counts as high cholesterol?

High cholesterol, also known as hyperlipidemia, is a common condition.1 However, what counts as “high” may look different between different people. Currently, the following cholesterol levels are recommended for adults 20 years or older [8]:

  • Total cholesterol – 125 to 200 mg/dL
  • HDL cholesterol – 40 mg/DL or higher in men; 50 mg/DL or higher in women
  • LDL cholesterol – 100 mg/dL or less
  • VLDL cholesterol – 30 mg/dL or less [7]
  • Triglycerides – 150 mg/DL or less

For men and women under 20 years old, the following cholesterol levels are recommended:

  • Total Cholesterol – Less than 170mg/dL [8]
  • HDL cholesterol – More than 45mg/dL
  • LDL cholesterol – Less than 100mg/dL
  • VLDL cholesterol – 30 mg/dL or less [7]
  • Triglycerides – 150 mg/DL or less

How can you lower cholesterol?

So, how long does it take to lower cholesterol? In reality, there’s no set timeline—or a set method.

The right treatment plan for you—and how long it takes—will come down to your medical needs, history, and lifestyle preferences. Depending on your plan, it could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to see any measurable results. Here are some medically advised ways to lower your cholesterol, from diet changes to supplements.

See related: Can cholesterol be too low?

Avoid trans fat and saturated fats

If you enjoy a daily store-bought donut or heavily buttered toast, it might be time to find alternatives. Cutting out saturated fats and trans fats from your diet could help lower “bad” cholesterol levels [9].

Unlike healthy fats, diets that are high in trans fats (which are mostly chemically processed) and saturated fats (which are found in animal products) add more artery-clogging lipids to your system, which can raise your LDL cholesterol—and put you at greater risk for heart disease [9]. Currently, the American Heart Association recommends lowering your saturated fat intake to 6% of your total calories [10].

Consider reducing your intake of these foods to keep your trans fat and saturated fat levels in check:

  • Butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Margarine
  • Commercial baked goods
  • Red meat
  • Cured meats
  • Cheese
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Fried foods

Should you also worry about the cholesterol in a food’s nutrition facts? While it’s a logical conclusion, dietary cholesterol does not always raise blood cholesterol levels. When you eat more cholesterol, your liver produces less of it to balance your blood levels.11 However, about 40% of the population are cholesterol “hyperresponders,” meaning their liver does not reduce its LDL cholesterol production—but it may increase HDL production, which would eliminate excess bad cholesterol [12].

Eat a plant-based diet

A plant-based diet could significantly lower your cholesterol levels thanks to its two components—more fiber and less saturated fats. While a reduced intake of saturated fat can prevent your cholesterol numbers from going up, adding more fiber can directly lower LDL cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease [13].

One study found that people with vegetarian diets had significantly lower cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians [14]. Even better, simply adding more plant-based fiber to one’s diet was shown to reduce LDL cholesterol by more than 28 percent in just 4 weeks [14]. To reap the heart health benefits, start by adding more fibrous plant-based foods to your plate, such as:

  • Fruits – Apples, berries, melons, pears, avocado
  • Vegetables – Beets, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, peppers, artichoke
  • Whole grains – Oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice
  • Nuts and seeds – Almonds, chia, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds
  • Legumes – Chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans, kidney beans
  • Soy products – Tofu, tempeh, nutritional yeast

Exercise

Certain types of exercise to lower cholesterol levels has a direct positive impact, particularly aerobic exercise like running or swimming [10]. In one study, a medium-intensity exercise program both lowered LDL cholesterol and boosted HDL cholesterol in just 12 weeks [15]. According to the American Heart Association, about 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week is enough to make a positive impact on cholesterol levels, with some popular options being [10]:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Yard work
  • Jumping rope
  • Dancing

Keep in mind that exercise is not a quick fix for cholesterol. To maintain any positive results, you’ll need to continue exercising for the long-term. Otherwise, your high cholesterol may return.

Quit smoking

Cancer, stroke, lung disease, diabetes—the list of negative health outcomes from smoking goes on and on [16]. Unfortunately, high cholesterol and heart disease are included in this list, but ceasing to smoke can at least partially reduce these risks [16].

Smoking (as well as vaping) lowers your levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which means your body is clearing less “bad” cholesterol from its system.10 Fortunately, research shows that quitting smoking can rapidly boost HDL cholesterol [17]. The earlier you can eliminate smoking, the faster you can restore healthy cholesterol levels.

Consider cholesterol-lowering medications

If you have long-term or dangerously high cholesterol levels, health professionals may recommend medications that lower cholesterol. Typically, these medications are faster at restoring healthy cholesterol levels than lifestyle changes, working in as little as a few weeks [18]. These medications could include [21]:

  • Statins – Statins are usually the first choice for cholesterol medication. These drugs decrease LDL and triglyceride levels while boosting HDL, as well as reducing the inflammation of blood vessels containing cholesterol plaques [18]. Medical professionals often prescribe statins for those without heart disease but who show increased risk factors (high LDL, diabetes, etc.).
  • Bile acid sequestrants – By eliminating cholesterol through your digestive system, these drugs help lower total cholesterol levels [21].
  • PCSK9 inhibitors – Powerful and effective, PCSK9 inhibitors bind to the proteins on liver cells to prevent the liver from producing excess LDL cholesterol [21].
  • Adenosine triphosphate-citrate lyase (ACL) inhibitors – A newer drug, ACL inhibitors block the liver from producing cholesterol, often used in combination with lifestyle changes or statin medications [21].
  • Selective cholesterol absorption inhibitors – This class of drugs reduces the absorption of cholesterol in the digestive tract [19]. However, they do not prevent the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, triglycerides, or bile acids.
  • Fibrates – If your triglyceride levels are high, a medical professional may prescribe fibrates to lower your count [21]. Fibrates also have a moderate ability to lower LDL cholesterol.
  • Supplements – Technically, supplements are not medication. However, there are nutrients found in everyday foods that could significantly lower cholesterol with time. Both niacin (a B vitamin) and omega-3 fatty acids are shown to reduce triglycerides and even mildly lower LDL cholesterol [21]. To maximize their benefits, medical professionals may prescribe or offer these healthy fats and nutrients in supplement form.

Work towards healthy cholesterol levels with Everywell

High cholesterol can be a scary diagnosis—but it doesn't have to be a permanent one. With guidance and the right changes, you can effectively lower your cholesterol for a more heart-healthy future.

If it’s been a while since your last test or you’re actively trying to lower your levels, you may be left wondering if your cholesterol levels are in check. Fortunately, there are easy ways to get accessible cholesterol testing right from home. Order the Everlywell Cholesterol & Lipids Test and receive your own HDL, LDL, triglycerides, and total cholesterol numbers using an easy, at-home lab test.

How to use exercise to lower cholesterol levels

Can cholesterol be too low?

What to eat on a low cholesterol diet


References

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  2. What Is Cholesterol? Cleveland Clinic. Accessed February 9, 2023. URL
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  4. Bancells C, Canals F, Benítez S, et al. Proteomic analysis of electronegative low-density lipoprotein. Journal of Lipid Research. 2010;51(12):3508-3515. doi:https://doi.org/10.1194/jlr.m009258
  5. Juarez Casso FM, Farzam K. Biochemistry, Very Low Density Lipoprotein. PubMed. Published 2022. URL
  6. LDL & HDL: Good & Bad Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published October 31, 2017. URL
  7. VLDL Cholesterol. MedlinePlus. Published 2019. URL
  8. Cholesterol Levels: What You Need to Know. MedlinePlus. Published October 2, 2020. URL
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  10. Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia). American Heart Association. Published 2020. URL
  11. Jones PJH, Pappu AS, Hatcher L, Li ZC, Illingworth DR, Connor WE. Dietary Cholesterol Feeding Suppresses Human Cholesterol Synthesis Measured by Deuterium Incorporation and Urinary Mevalonic Acid Levels. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. 1996;16(10):1222-1228. doi:https://doi.org/10.1161/01.atv.16.10.1222
  12. Herron KL, Vega-Lopez S, Conde K, Ramjiganesh T, Shachter NS, Fernandez ML. Men Classified as Hypo- or Hyperresponders to Dietary Cholesterol Feeding Exhibit Differences in Lipoprotein Metabolism. The Journal of Nutrition. 2003;133(4):1036-1042. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/133.4.1036
  13. Soliman GA. Dietary Fiber, Atherosclerosis, and Cardiovascular Disease. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1155. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051155
  14. Yokoyama Y, Levin SM, Barnard ND. Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews. 2017;75(9):683-698. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nux030
  15. Stanton KM, Kienzle V, Dinnes DLM, et al. Moderate‐ and High‐Intensity Exercise Improves Lipoprotein Profile and Cholesterol Efflux Capacity in Healthy Young Men. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2022;11(12). doi:https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.121.023386
  16. Health Effects. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 28, 2020. URL
  17. Forey BA, Fry JS, Lee PN, Thornton AJ, Coombs KJ. The effect of quitting smoking on HDL-cholesterol - a review based on within-subject changes. Biomarker Research. 2013;1(1):26. doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/2050-7771-1-26
  18. Statins: Are these cholesterol-lowering drugs right for you? Mayo Clinic. Published 2018. URL
  19. Nutescu EA, Shapiro NL. Ezetimibe: A Selective Cholesterol Absorption Inhibitor. Pharmacotherapy. 2003;23(11):1463-1474. doi:https://doi.org/10.1592/phco.23.14.1463.31942
  20. Statins. British Heart Foundation. Published August 8, 2018. URL
  21. Cholesterol Medications. American Heart Association. Published 2018. Accessed February 9, 2023. URL
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