Does Policosanol Reduce Cholesterol?

cholesterolWhen you think of sugar, you don’t think of lowering cholesterol. But Cuban researchers do. In fact they think that a byproduct of the sugar industry, policosanol, is an effective alternative to prescription drugs in reducing blood cholesterol levels. Cuba has a large sugar cane industry, but world competition to sell sugar is fierce. Any profitable byproducts of the sugar producing industry are therefore most welcome. Cuba also has a significant pharmaceutical industry which has targeted the abundant sugar cane crop as a possible source of therapeutically useful compounds. When you think of “alcohol,” chances are you’re thinking of ethyl alcohol, the inebriating component of beverages. But to the chemist, the term alcohol means something different. It refers to a whole class of molecules that have a common molecular feature, namely the presence of a specific oxygen-hydrogen atomic grouping. It turns out that the naturally occurring wax that coats the sugar cane plant is composed of a mix of alcohols which differ only in the number of carbon atoms in the molecule. Experiments show that this mixture, which is referred to as policosanol, can reduce blood cholesterol. At least if you’re in Cuba. Apparently 250,000 Cubans take the product and they don’t all have high cholesterol. They believe, without any evidence, that policosanol boosts energy, stimulates weight loss and even increases the libido. With all this hype floating around, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that policosanol is sold in some 40 countries.

A number of studies carried out on Cuban patients have indeed shown that that not only does policosanol reduce cholesterol, it does so more effectively than the statin drugs. The most effective component of policosanol seems to be the twenty eight carbon molecule called octacosanol, which the Cubans hypothesize, again without evidence, interferes with cholesterol synthesis in the liver. Furthermore, unlike the statins, policosanol, at least in the Cuban studies, increases HDL, the so-called good cholesterol. Now, though, German researchers, aware that most studies were sponsored by a company founded by Cuba’s National Center for Scientific Research, decided to carry out their own trial. They enrolled 143 people with high cholesterol and divided them into two groups. Half the subjects took policosanol for twelve weeks while the other half took a dummy pill. Blood cholesterol levels were not reduced in either group even though the researchers used the same preparation as in the Cuban trials. Of course, this is just one study, still it is curious that no benefit was seen at all. It seems that if you want your cholesterol levels reduced with policosanol, you have to be Cuban. Needless to say the Cuban researchers have been mum about this study but the German company Bayer has not been thrilled either. Bayer sells “One-A-Day Cholesterol Plus Vitamins” in which it uses sugar cane-based policosanol and hypes the product as “the leading complete multivitamin specially formulated with heart – supporting nutrients.” Maybe the only thing policosanol supports is the sale of the product.


Joe Schwarcz

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