There seems to be a lot of confusion around the issue of cholesterol, as to what is good cholesterol, and what is bad cholesterol. We hope that with this article we can clear up some of the facts, and give you a better understanding of this important substance in our bodies.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is essential to the human body. It is manufactured in all cells of the body and the liver is the chief organ in balancing cholesterol levels. We also ingest cholesterol through the foods we eat.
Our systems manufacture cholesterol directly in response to the need for the substance. It is an essential compound in the body and has numerous functions (1):
- Its primary role is to act as a barrier in the cell walls determining what is allowed in or out of the cell
- It is used to repair wounds, including tears and irritations in the arteries
- Many important hormones are made from cholesterol
- It is vital to the function of the brain and nervous system
- The bile salts, needed for the digestion of fats, are made from cholesterol
- It is the precursor to vitamin D, which is formed by the action of ultraviolet light on cholesterol in the skin
- It protects us from free radicals (which can lead to cancer)
- It helps the body fight infection
- Cholesterol is also vital for thyroid health. A study conducted recently revealed that ‘bad cholesterol’(see explanation below) rises in direct correlation to thyroid function. If one’s thyroid is under active, cholesterol levels will rise (2)
Cholesterol is found circulating the blood in complexes called Lipoproteins. Lipoproteins act as transport vehicles for cholesterol and there are two types:
- Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL): Known as the ‘bad cholesterol’, carries cholesterol from the liver throughout the body, and potentially allows it to be deposited on artery walls
- High Density Lipoprotein (HDL): Known as the ‘good cholesterol’ carries cholesterol from the cells of the body to the liver where it mixes with bile and is eliminated as waste
When testing cholesterol levels it is important to test both HDL and LDL concentrations.
LDL levels higher than 160 mg/dL or HDL levels lower than 40 mg/dL (men)/ 50 mg/dL (women) indicates risk of heart disease and other health complications (3).
Cholesterol has received a lot of negative press over the years. There has always been speculation that an increase in cholesterol in the blood (due to diet and lifestyle) builds up on artery walls causing narrowing or hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and a block in the flow oxygen to the heart, resulting in a heart attack. However, new ideas are now emerging and research is challenging the notion that cholesterol in itself is a cause of heart disease. Instead, it has been claimed that cholesterol is not a disease but a symptom. High cholesterol is an indication that there is something problematic within the body:
- Inflammation is now being recognized as a main culprit for heart disease or heart attacks, not cholesterol (2). High levels of inflammation create small lesions on arterial walls. The body responds by sending LDL to heal those lesions, ultimately leading to accumulation and oxidization, thereby causing blockages (4)
- Free radicals increase in the body due to poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle and stress, causing damage to arterial walls. The body responds by increasing cholesterol levels to smooth the arterial wall surfaces or fill holes. When sticky fats, such as those found in fried foods and fatty animal proteins move through the blood vessels, they stick to this ‘plaster’ cholesterol causing a narrowing of the blood passageways (1)
- The body responds to increased toxins in the body (due to unhealthy diet and lifestyle habit) by producing more cholesterol and sending it to the cell walls to protect the DNA inside them,thus elevating blood cholesterol levels
There are cases, however, when cholesterol produced within this body is not normal and healthy. Some may be born with a predisposition to higher cholesterol or have a rare condition called cholesteremia where the body over produces it. In this case, when diet alone cannot control the levels, medical intervention may be the only option.
Drugs such as statins, nicotinic acid, fibrates, or Ezetimibe play a role in lowering LDL or increasing HDL (4). However, continuous monitoring of cholesterol levels need to be maintained. Certain foods such as grapefruits interact with statins making the drug’s availability levels dangerously high, so it is necessary to be well-informed and educated when embarking on cholesterol drug’s.
For the rest, a simple lifestyle- and diet-change can have a major impact on improving cholesterol levels:
- Losing weight by following the recommended diet outlined in this article and taking part in regular exercise
- Avoiding certain saturated and trans-fats such as those found in processed and fast foods
- Decreasing refined sugar consumption. It is noted that sugar spikes the body’s insulin levels, which in turn elevates LDL levels. High sugar consumption is also related to inflammation within the body (5, 6)
- Increasing consumption of omega-3’s through fatty fish, olive oil, walnuts and omega-3 supplements, known to reduce inflammation and increase HDL while decreasing LDL
- Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can help lower blood cholesterol levels, making avocados and olive oil a heart-healthy food
- Soluble fiber is critical in lowering cholesterol levels naturally. In the large intestine, soluble fiber will bind to the cholesterol contained in bile and aid in eliminating it from the body. Foods rich in soluble fiber include fruits, vegetables, oat bran, barley, seed husks, flax seed, psyllium, dried beans, lentils, peas, soy milk and soy products.
- Oats is a necessity as it is high in fiber and contains a unique antioxidant/ phytonutrient called avenanthramides that helps prevent free radicals (1)
- Increasing antioxidant intake of vitamins A, C, E and zinc can help prevent free radical damage
- Fenugreek seeds and leaves, artichoke leaf extract, yarrow, and holy basil may all help lower cholesterol. These and other commonly used herbs and spices including ginger, turmeric, and rosemary are being investigated for their potential beneficial effects relating to coronary disease prevention
- Phytosterols (plant sterol and stanol esters) are compounds found in small amounts in foods such as whole grains as well as in many vegetables, fruits, and vegetable oils. They decrease LDL cholesterol, mostly by interfering with the intestinal absorption of cholesterol
- The powerful antioxidant CoQ10 benefits heart health by protecting LDL cholesterol from oxidation and by re-energizing the mitochondria in the heart cells, which is where energy metabolism occurs (4)
- In terms of controlling high cholesterol it is important to keep meat intake to a minimum and to only include lean, grain fed animal products
At the other end of the spectrum, it has been determined that low cholesterol in the body is related to chronic depression. Whether it is drug-induced, genetic or a result of dietary patterns, low cholesterol impairs optimal brain function and often prevents successful recovery from chronic depression (6). Therefore, it is important to keep HDL levels by including the foods described above.
As you can see, cholesterol is not the enemy but the body’s tool for healing an underlying issue. The problem arises when one loads extra cholesterol into the body (from unhealthy fats or processed foods) that interfere with the body’s natural healing process, thereby running the risk of heart disease. The bottom line is to follow a healthy diet and lifestyle. This will negate the need for the body to produce excess cholesterol, as well as avoid harm when the body is engaged in a natural healing process.
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