Cholesterol – the facts not the fear


There, I’ve said it. I’m sure there are people out there reading this and thinking “hey, hang on a minute, that’s not what my Doctor says”.  I’m also sure that if any pharmaceutical companies are reading this (which I’m sure they won’t be – natural health website) they would just love to tell me that I am putting people’s health at risk.

There have been many studies over many years that have consistently shown no correlation between high cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease. Research has shown time and again that people with cardiovascular disease can have low cholesterol levels as well as high levels and that people with high cholesterol levels often have no cardiovascular disease.

Despite the fact that millions of Australians are prescribed statin drugs and despite the fact that Australians have reduced the fat content of our diets, cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death in Australia.

The real culprit in heart disease is high blood pressure, high triglycerides, inflammation and oxidation of fats in the arteries.

So, if you are interested in learning the truth about cholesterol, read on and make your own mind up, rather than blindly following the attitude that if you have high cholesterol, you need to artificially lower it with drugs.

What is cholesterol?…..

You have all heard of HDL and LDL, the common terms for cholesterol, but what exactly is cholesterol? In actual fact, HDL (commonly referred to as good cholesterol) and LDL (commonly referred to as bad cholesterol) are not cholesterol, they are just the carriers for it. HDL stands for high density lipoprotein and LDL stands for low density lipoprotein. They are simply a particle consisting of fat (lipid) and protein that carries cholesterol throughout the body. There is also another lipoprotein called sdLDL (small dense lipoprotein), which is not commonly discussed but which is far more important with regards to cardiovascular disease.

The actual cholesterol is a fat like substance that is essential to life and is found in every cell in the human body. Because it is a fat, otherwise known as a lipid, it cannot travel throughout the watery blood of the human body, which is why it attaches itself to a lipoprotein (HDL and LDL).

For the sake of ease, during this article I will refer to cholesterol as HDL, LDL and sdLDL.

What role does cholesterol play in the body?…..

Cholesterol is essential for human life. Without it, we would die.

It travels around the body and helps build cell membranes. It also helps to repair damaged cell membranes. Cellular damage is occurring all the time, so without cholesterol these damaged cells would simply die.

It is also required to synthesise steroid hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone and adrenal hormones. Steroid hormones govern our sexual development and function, help reduce inflammation in the body, help us cope with stress, and regulate the excretion of salt and water via the kidneys, to name but a few of their functions. Without these hormones, we could not exist.

Cholesterol also helps produce bile salts, one of its most important roles. Bile salts are essential for the digestion of fats and the absorption of nutrients. Being unable to digest fats and absorb nutrients efficiently leads to malnutrition and a myriad of health issues.

Without cholesterol we would not be able to synthesise Vitamin D, which is essential for the formation, growth and repair of bones, for a healthy immune system, cognitive function and as protection against certain cancers.

It also helps to protect the health of arteries by eliminating oxidised fats and stopping the formation of blood clots. Yes, that is correct. Cholesterol actually helps to protect us from cardiovascular disease.

What is the difference between LDL and HDL and sdLDL? …..

LDL carries the cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body so it can work its magic, in repairing damages cells, helping to synthesise Vitamin D, steroid hormones and bile salts.

HDL then collects the excess LDL, returns it to the liver to be recycled into more LDL or metabolised and excreted from the body. It also helps clean up the inside of the walls of blood vessels.

sdLDL is a result of LDL staying in the blood stream for too long. The LDL then becomes small and hard. This small, hard LDL (sdLDL) oxidises and can then become trapped in the walls of blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis, which is the medical term for blockages in the blood vessels. This in turn impedes the blood flow to the heart, leading to heart disease. One of the reasons that LDL can turn into sdLDL is because of high triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a type of fat that is manufactured in the liver as a bi product of the metabolism (break down) of carbohydrates, sugar, fructose and alcohol. These triglycerides are stored in fat cells for use later as a potential source of energy and are used as a protective barrier for the cells throughout the body but excessive triglycerides are a health danger and high levels are one of the best indicators of potential heart disease.

What do my cholesterol test results actually mean?

When a cholesterol test is done, the overall amount of cholesterol is measured – HDL and LDL. Triglyceride levels are usually also measured.  The “healthy range” varies greatly between pathology laboratories, with one Australian laboratory classing 3.9 – 5.5 as “within range” and another classing 3.9 – 7.4 as “within range.”

This type of test is absolutely useless because it does not differentiate between HDL, LDL and sdLDL levels. A hundred people could have a result of an overall high cholesterol level but some may have very high levels of HDL, others may have very high levels of LDL (neither are a problem) but some may have high levels of sdLDL (a problem). Very different results, and very different indicators of health.

The other type of cholesterol test that can be done measures the cholesterol fractions. It lists the HDL, LDL and Triglyceride levels and gives a ratio of these levels. This test is better at indicating potential health issues with regards to cholesterol levels, but it still does not tell the whole story because it does not measure sdLDL levels.

The level of triglycerides on the other hand is a better indicator of cardiovascular risk because usually if triglyceride levels are high, then sdLDL levels are high.

Why does modern medicine insist that high cholesterol (supposedly caused by high saturated fat intake) causes heart disease? …..

In the 1950’s an American Nutritionist by the name of Ancel Keys compared the rates of heart disease and saturated fat consumption in 6 countries, which showed an almost perfect correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. But there was one rather large problem with his hypothesis – he withheld data from another 16 countries. Later, when researchers added those 16 countries to the graph it showed that there was no absolutely correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. Ancel Keys had completely fudged the data to get the result he wanted.

Over the next 15 years, various studies were conducted but none of these studies confirmed Keys’ hypothesis, that high saturated fat consumption leads to heart disease. The medical profession had dismissed his research and it was only in the 1970’s, when Keys was awarded a position in the American Heart Association, that his hypothesis was accepted as fact.

There have been many subsequent trials over the past 50 years which have failed to prove that lowering saturated fat reduces your risk of dying from a heart attack.

Why do I have high cholesterol? …..

There are many reasons that your body might be making excess cholesterol. Low Vitamin D status prompts the liver to produce more cholesterol. Poor liver function means that the excess cholesterol is not excreted from the body. A lot of inflammation in the body which causes cellular damage means that extra cholesterol is needed to damage the repair. Certain medications can raise your cholesterol levels.

High cholesterol can also be a sign of a poor functioning kidney and an underactive thyroid. High stress levels can also lead to an increase in cholesterol. Cholesterol is essential in the production of hormones, so if your hormones are out of balance, the body can produce more cholesterol to make more hormones.

How much impact does diet have on cholesterol levels? …..

Around 85% of our cholesterol is produced in the body, with the remaining 15% obtained through diet. The body tightly regulates the amount of cholesterol by controlling its production. The body makes more cholesterol if our dietary intake goes down, and subsequently makes less if our dietary intake of cholesterol goes up. So attempting to reduce your levels of cholesterol through diet is very difficult.

Triglycerides on the other hand are definitely affected by diet and by reducing refined carbohydrates, grains, sugars and alcohol, triglyceride levels can successfully be lowered.

There is one type of fat that should definitely be completely eliminated from your diet and that is trans fats, which are found in commercially baked goods and deep fried food. Trans fats increase triglyceride levels and have been banned in parts of America, Canada and Denmark, amongst other countries.

What do I do if I have high cholesterol? …..

If you have high cholesterol (we are talking about high LDL levels, not high HDL levels), it is important to find out why. Even though high LDL levels are not an indicator of cardiovascular disease, these levels normally rise because of some dysfunction throughout the body.

By finding out why your cholesterol is high, you can treat the real problem. For example, if you cholesterol is high because you have low Vitamin D levels, supplement with Vitamin D or get some more sunlight and your cholesterol levels will balance out. If you have a lot of inflammation throughout your body and cellular damage, you need to treat this with antioxidants and healthy eating. Visit a naturopath if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels in order to get to the cause of the problem.

Does high cholesterol lead to heart disease? …..

In a word, no. But of course there is more to this story. The actual cholesterol (HDL or LDL) is not the problem, it is what can happen to it in the body.

As you have read so far, cholesterol is essential for life, but as it travels throughout the body, repairing cells, assisting with digestion and manufacturing hormones and vitamin D, if it stays in the blood too long, the LDL can turn into sdLDL and become oxidised. If there is damage to the wall of the blood vessels, which usually occurs due to high blood pressure, stress and a poor diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, the sdLDL and triglycerides can oxidise, become trapped in the damaged arterial wall, and cause a build up of plaque. It is important to note that if there is no damage to the arterial wall, and this is very achievable through a healthy diet and lifestyle, and if the LDL does not turn into sdLDL and become oxidised, which once again is very achievable through a healthy lifestyle, there is no problem.

The other real culprit with regards to plaque build up in arteries is triglycerides. As mentioned above, high trigycerides leads to high sdLDL, so if triglyceride levels are high, they need to be lowered. High triglycerides are a result of over consumption of refined carbohydrates, sugars, trans fats and alcohol. .

So it really comes down to diet and lifestyle. If you eat a healthy diet high in antioxidants and low in sugar and processed foods, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight and lower your blood pressure, then there will not be a high rate of oxidation of the cholesterol.

Why shouldn’t I artificially lower my cholesterol? …..

Going onto cholesterol lowering medication without first finding the cause of the high cholesterol can be dangerous. What if, for example, your cholesterol is high because there is an increased need for cholesterol to repair damaged cells, or to make more Vitamin D if your level is low? If you lower your cholesterol artificially through medication, you are not enabling the repair of those damaged cells and you are not able to produce enough Vitamin D. What if an under functioning thyroid gland is causing your increase in cholesterol. Once again, by going onto medication to artificially lower your cholesterol, your under active thyroid is not treated. Your body has an amazing ability to tell you when something is wrong. By ignoring its signals and treating only the symptom (in this case, the high cholesterol) you risk doing further damage to your body.

Why are statin drugs bad for me? …..

Statin drugs artificially lower cholesterol, so for this very reason they are not healthy (as mentioned above). There are also many potential side effects, some of them very serious, including muscle pain and degenerative muscular disorders, loss of energy, digestive disturbances, diarrhoea, nausea, anaemia, memory loss, serious liver damage, sexual dysfunction, immune suppression, type 2 diabetes and kidney failure.

What happens if my cholesterol is too low? …..

In 1994, the American Heart Association published a groundbreaking report about a link between cholesterol levels of less than 4.13mmol/l and an increase in deaths from trauma, some types of cancer, hemorrhagic stroke, and respiratory and infectious diseases. Since that report, there have been many studies that have linked very low cholesterol levels to an increased risk of depression, suicide, anxiety, impulsivity and aggression in men and women, adolescents and adults alike.

Research has also shown that people with very low cholesterol have overall shortened lifespans.

Other symptoms of very low cholesterol include poor memory, lowered immunity, lower vitamin D levels and hormonal imbalances.

Summary …..

  • Cholesterol is essential for life.
  • Research has shown no correlation between high cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease.
  • It is not the actual cholesterol that can cause potential plaque build up in the arteries, but the increase in sdLDL and its subsequent oxidation.
  • The culprits in cardiovascular disease are sdLDL, triglycerides, high blood pressure, inflammation and oxidation.
  • This oxidation is a result of an unhealthy lifestyle and diet.
  • It is potentially dangerous to artificially lower your cholesterol through drugs.
  • Saturated and unsaturated fat does not cause cardiovascular disease.
  • Trans fats (found in fried food and commercial cakes, breads and biscuits) and triglycerides (caused by a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and alcohol) can cause cardiovascular disease.
  • Cholesterol tests that just give an overall cholesterol level are useless in determining potential cardiovascular risk.
  • Never ignore high cholesterol levels. If cholesterol levels are high, it is essential to find out why and treat the cause.

By Andrea Southern,                                                                                                Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist                                                                           at Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane.                                                                     For an appointment phone 0412 791 705

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