By: Alison Mitchell, Naturopath
It seems that everyone is talking about cholesterol these days, but do you really know what it is? What can you do to maintain healthy cholesterol levels? Are high cholesterol levels really bad? Or are they a sign of something underlying?
Cholesterol is a type of fat molecule that is carried around in the blood. It is only present in animals. It performs useful functions in the body and is a major building block for cells and many of your hormones, including oestrogen, testosterone and cortisol. The brain and central nervous system, connective tissue, muscle and skin account for about 75% of total body cholesterol. We need cholesterol for these parts of our body to work properly. Cholesterol is also important for the synthesis of vitamin D, as well as bile acids which aid in the digestion of fats. Our bodies manufacture cholesterol but it can also be found in foods containing saturated fats.
Cholesterol is a healing agent. When there are problems in the body such as inflammation, stress or hormone imbalances our liver will make more cholesterol to deal with this problem. Keeping this in mind we can see that high cholesterol levels are not as much a problem in themselves, but rather an indicator or warning of something else going wrong in the body. One of the main triggers for the body to make more cholesterol is inflammation, which in itself is a big cause of heart and vascular disease. Simply lowering cholesterol levels with conventional medications ignores this underlying problem.
Cholesterol in plant foods? Nope.
Remember that cholesterol is actually a fat molecule and is only found in animals (so the labels on potato chip packets saying 'No Cholesterol' are kinda redundant) and when we consume it in a food from animal products we are consuming the cholesterol molecule as a whole, as 'free cholesterol'. When cholesterol is in our blood it has to be transported in particles called lipoproteins. This is what we measure in blood tests.
Cholesterol & diet
Only 30% of people have increased blood cholesterol from increased cholesterol consumption. The other 70% are protected by a regulating mechanism whereby the body produces less cholesterol when they eat more cholesterol, and produces more when they get less from food.
Cholesterol consumption has remained constant for the last 100 years while the incidence of cardiovascular disease has increased by 300%, indicating cholesterol intake cannot be the primary cause. And if it was, why are doctors having little success in preventing cardiovascular disease based on this theory?
One of the ways we can understand the increased rates of heart disease is looking at the differences in society's diet over time. In the past fat and sugar consumption was lower, while vitamin, mineral, vegetable and unprocessed or 'wholegrain' intake was greater. These changes are causing cholesterol to have a more damaging effect on our body.
Inflammation: The real cause of high cholesterol levels
Cholesterol is not increased from the intake of cholesterol through our diet. Remember that we have a regulating mechanism, and the body will make more cholesterol if it feels it is necessary. Some examples of increased need for cholesterol may be if we have a hormone deficiency (cholesterol is the building block for hormones) or cell membranes require repair (if they've been damaged through inflammation or oxidation). Heart disease is increasing because we are more inflamed, have more oxidation, and have more hormonal imbalances. If we are eating too much refined sugar or omega-6 fatty acids (instead of omega-3) this causes inflammation and imbalances in our body. Stress (a potent but commonly ignored cause of high cholesterol) can cause cortisol imbalances. Too much intake of sugar and refined grains can contribute towards insulin resistance, liver and pancreas problems and can cause oxidation of our LDL. When this happens we have an environment where plaque will be more likely build up in our arteries.
Take on these tips for eating and living to support healthy cholesterol and cardiovascular health:
Follow the Mediterranean diet. People eating this diet rich in essential nutrients and antioxidants have the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease in the world.
Eat good fats and eliminate detrimental trans fats found in many fast foods, fried foods and packaged baked goods. Cut down on sugary refined carbohydrates and processed food. These foods often contain 'hidden sugars' that can be converted to fat when supply is high.
Weight loss. If you are overweight, losing extra weight will help to lose the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. Your Practitioner can recommend a clinically-proven weight loss program and targeted supplements to assist healthy weight management.
Get moving towards a healthy lifestyle. Exercise improves cardiovascular and overall health and supports your "good" cholesterol levels. Move away from unhealthy habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol intake as they increase your cardiovascular risk.
Address inflammation. If you have increased levels of cholesterol, it is at least in part because of increased inflammation in your body. The cholesterol is there to do a job: help your body to heal and repair. Some basic ways to support inflammation is to reduce inflammation by avoiding foods which can contribute to inflammation and supplement with anti-inflammatory herbs and nutrients.
Balance hormones. Steroid hormones in the body are made from cholesterol: testosterone, progesterone, pregnenolone, androsterone, estrone, estradiol, corticosterone, aldosterone and others. These hormones accomplish a myriad of functions in the body, from regulation of our metabolism, energy production, mineral assimilation, brain, muscle and bone formation to behavior, emotions and reproduction. In our stressful modern lives we consume a lot of these hormones, leading to a condition called "adrenal exhaustion." Stress and hormone deficiency can cause the body to make more cholesterol.
Alison Mitchell is a naturopath who practices at Health Dimensions, a multi-disciplinary clinic located in Windsor and Bella Vista. Alison enjoys working with womens health, chronic pain and digestive health. For more on Alison and to visit her blog visit www.naturopathnsw.com.au
She consults at Bella Vista: 02 8824 6792 & Windsor: 02 45776215 Health Dimensions & Path to Health Northmead - (02) 9683 7995