Policosanol is a mixture of alcohol compounds -- mostly octacosanol -- extracted from the waxy coatings found on leaves and stems of plants. In humans, these alcohols are thought to work as well as statin drugs in lowering levels of "bad" (or LDL) cholesterol. Policosanol research was pioneered in Cuba, where most of the supplement is derived from sugar cane. In the U.S., policosanol supplements are made from a variety of sources, including wheat germ, yams and beeswax. The latest research, however, confirms that only sugar cane policosanol is effective.
Uses: Policosanol is most often taken in attempts to lower cholesterol and ward off atherosclerosis (a narrowing and hardening of the arteries) and other forms of cardiovascular disease. It's also sometimes taken as an antioxidant and to boost energy levels.
Dose: Studies suggest that 10 milligrams of policosanol a day is optimal. Twenty milligrams a day or more doesn't appear to offer any additional benefit.
Precautions: Policosanol's side effects can include weight loss, headache, dizziness, upset stomach and insomnia. Because it can thin the blood, policosanol shouldn't be taken with other blood-thinning drugs or supplements.
Research: Recent research shows that policosanol has no antioxidant ability. In animal studies, it appears to lower the risk of bone loss as well as atherosclerosis. More than a dozen human research studies have shown that policosanol can lower LDL levels and total cholesterol levels in the blood. Most of these studies, done by a few researchers in Cuba, looked solely at sugar cane policosanol. European clinical trials using other forms found that the supplement wasn't effective in lowering cholesterol.
Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your doctor for advice on selecting a brand.
-- Elena Conis