Six Surprising Facts About Cholesterol

Bacon CupcakesOne of the most maddening health myths being perpetuated today is that cholesterol is bad and we should avoid it at all costs. This is, quite frankly, a load of rubbish. (Please be proud of me for using the word “rubbish” instead of a few other more descriptive nouns.) For more information on this topic, I highly recommend the book, Sex, Lies & Cholesterol by Dr. Ryan Bentley. Click the link to view more about this book.

The bottom line is that your body could not maintain healthy cell membranes, digest your food, maintain the myelin sheath that protects nerves, or product hormones without cholesterol. Sound important? It is! The following six facts may surprise you:

FACT: Cholesterol is Essential for Good Health

It is a simple truth that cholesterol is contained in every cell in the human body and is essential for health. A lack of cholesterol in the body impacts the body’s ability to create vital substances such as Vitamin D, reproductive hormones and adrenal hormones; negatively affects neurotransmitter function in the brain; can make it impossible for the body to maintain healthy cell membranes; and makes it impossible for the gallbladder to function correctly and for the body to digest and absorb fats. The body also uses cholesterol to repair damage to blood vessel walls, making it vitally important. Although portrayed as a “villain,” cholesterol is actually an essential nutrient that is important for health.

FACT: There’s No Such Thing as Good and Bad Cholesterol

In spite of what we’re told, there is only one type of cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat which has attached itself to a protein. The terms LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) and HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) are used to differentiate between the types of proteins contained in the cholesterol. The reason LDL cholesterol is sometimes referred to as “bad” is because some LDL particles are very tiny. These tiny particles have the ability to penetrate arterial walls, where they oxidize (or turn rancid) and can begin forming plaque. The likelihood of this happening is dependent on many factors, primary of which are lifestyle and family history. The bottom line, though, is that cholesterol is neither good nor bad, it simply is.

FACT: Dietary Fats Don’t Always Raise Cholesterol Levels

Studies have shown the consumption of dietary fat has little effect on cholesterol levels in the blood. The consumption of carbohydrates and sugars raises cholesterol levels more than consuming fats does because the body converts excess glucose in the blood stream to cholesterol and triglycerides. You obviously want to eat healthy fats and avoid hydrogenated oils, but the consumption of healthy fats has been shown to help normalize cholesterol levels – not raise them. Studies found that decreasing fat consumption actually increases the body’s production of cholesterol. The body recognizes its need for cholesterol and considers it so important that it produces more if it does not receive it via the diet. Does this mean we can eat as many Twinkies as we want? No. (Sorry.) It means we can enjoy healthy fats in moderation and should avoid unhealthy fats.

FACT: Cholesterol is Made in the Liver, Not Absorbed through the Diet

One of the many functions performed by the liver is the production of cholesterol. Experts estimate that 75% of the cholesterol in the body is produced by the liver, and that only 25% is gained through dietary intake. Statin drugs work by blocking an important liver enzyme, HMG-CoA reductase, that is responsible for producing cholesterol. The fact that statins cause the liver to stop producing a vital enzyme is primary among the reasons statins often cause liver damage.

One very simple way to maintain balance in cholesterol levels is to increase one’s consumption of dietary fiber. As the body produces cholesterol, it uses dietary fiber as one means of absorbing and eliminating cholesterol that is not needed for maintenance of body structures. Increasing dietary fiber is a very simple way to help maintain balance in cholesterol levels.

FACT: Standard Blood Tests Miss the Mark

Standard blood tests for cholesterol claim to measure Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and High Density Lipoproteins (HDL). Lipoproteins are “containers” that carry cholesterol throughout the body via the blood stream. The standard cholesterol blood test estimates the number of LDL particles using a complex equation and then estimates the amount of cholesterol contained in each. The problem with this method is that it is an estimate which can be very inaccurate. Studies have shown that measuring the actual number, size and density of LDL particles in the blood stream provides a much more accurate predictor of potential coronary issues. It is possible to have normal LDL levels via the standard tests but have elevated LDL particle levels. In my practice, I recommend using a blood test that measures both particle size and count. I work with a local lab that provides the test at a very low rate and which does not require a doctor’s order.

Statins May Do More Harm Than Good

As the commercials state, Statin drugs have multiple side effects, including body aches, itching, headaches, diarrhea, liver damage and more. One thing the pharmaceutical companies fail to share is that statins greatly reduce the amount of CoQ10 in the body. CoQ10 is an antioxidant which is essential for heart health. It is quite a paradox that a drug said to improve coronary health actually depletes the body of a nutrient essential for coronary health. Anyone taking a statin is strongly advised to take a CoQ10 supplement.

So what should you do if your doctor insists your cholesterol levels are high and that you need a statin? Do your research, for starters. I generally don’t get overly concerned about slightly elevated cholesterol levels, but do begin to recommend changes if triglyceride levels are elevated. (Triglycerides are “sticky” and play a larger role in blocking vessels.) For best results, explain your concerns to your doctor (feel free to share this article and the book I referenced above), and let him or her know that you do not believe cholesterol is the “demon” the pharmaceutical companies claim it is. During this discussion, please also ask your doctor to order an Insulin test during your next set of blood work. Elevated cholesterol levels are sometimes an indicator of beginning insulin resistance, so make sure you know where you stand. (Please see my post, Top 3 Blood Tests Almost Everyone Should Request for information on blood tests you should ask your doctor to run.) I find that asking for a six-month “window of opportunity” is often a very effective way of expressing that you are committed to creating change.

Ultimately, the decision to take a statin drug is yours. If you choose to not take one and your doctor fires you as a patient, perhaps it’s an indicator that it was time to move on. If you are on a statin, DO NOT stop taking it without thoroughly discussing your options with your doctor.

I find it somewhat common that post-menopausal women have slightly higher cholesterol levels, due to their body’s attempt to create additional hormones. I’m often amazed when women say their cholesterol went up after they hit 50 and their doctor immediately put them on a statin drug. The slight increase in cholesterol following menopause may actually be beneficial, as this provides more cholesterol the body can use to repair damage in vessel walls. I also find it very, very common that people who were long distance runners have elevated cholesterol levels for the rest of their life. I have several theories about why this is true, but cannot prove them scientifically. My assumption is that long distance running damages blood vessels in a way that causes the body to increase cholesterol production. Why the increase occurs longterm is a mystery, but there is a definite connection between long distance running and elevated cholesterol.

There are lifestyle and dietary changes that can positively impact cholesterol balance. Please use these proactive changes before choosing other options. 

If you are concerned about cholesterol or other health challenges and would like to address them using natural methods, please contact me. I will work with you to identify the causes of your health challenges, and will then work with you to create a plan to reverse them.

As always, this information is shared for educational purposes only. None of these statements were evaluated by the FDA and none are intended to diagnose, treat cure or prevent any health condition. Please check with your physician before making lifestyle changes or starting to take a supplement, and never stop taking prescription medication unless directed to do so by the prescribing physician.

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Dr. Pamela Reilly is a Naturopathic Physician dedicated to helping people improve their health and eliminate symptoms using natural, integrative methods. She has over 25 years of experience and has helped men, women and children improve their health using a holistic, client-centered focus. She sees clients in Indianapolis, does house calls, and also conducts consultations via Skype or telephone. Please feel free to contact her or visit her Consultations page for more information. Dr. Pamela speaks nationwide on a wide variety of health topics and welcomes speaking invitations.

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7 Responses to Six Surprising Facts About Cholesterol

  1. […] I’ll save my rant about the “Cholesterol Myth” for another day, but you can learn more about cholesterol in the article: Six Surprising Facts About Cholesterol. […]

  2. […] article will share more information about the necessity of fat in the diet. Until then, please read Surprising Facts About Cholesterol for more […]

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