Cholesterol is a fat that gets a lot of media attention and is always seen as ‘the bad guy’ when talking about heart disease and risk of stroke. Most people associate cholesterol with clogging of arteries resulting in angina and heart attacks. Cholesterol is however, a greatly misunderstood and very maligned fat, as contrary to popular belief it actually plays a vital role within our health and is not the silent killer we have been lead to believe. It would be fatal to remove cholesterol from our bodies, as it is necessary for the functioning of just about every system in our body. Rather than looking at cholesterol in isolation, looking at its complex functionality will give us a more balanced perspective on its health-giving role.
Almost all the cells in the body are able to produce cholesterol and it is the liver’s job to synthesise the cholesterol. Smith-Lemlis-Opitz Syndrome affects people with very low cholesterol levels and can produce the following effects; miscarriage, stillbirth, congenital or congestive heart failure, vomiting, constipation, cataracts, visual loss, hearing loss, hepatic failure and pneumonia. Having very, very low cholesterol suddenly isn’t quite so appealing. There is much evidence to show that low cholesterol in later years actually puts us at a greater risk of terminal disease like cancer.
The moving of cholesterol around the body is required for many functions the body performs to stay well, including synapse connections in the brain and the production of sex hormones. It is also a component of bile production for digestion and the flexible, complex bi-layer of phospholipids, which maintain the exterior structure of the cell. Vitamin D is synthesised from cholesterol, which is known to reduce inflammation and the risk of heart disease. The brain has the highest concentration of cholesterol in the body as it is made up of 60% fats and so it affects our moods, memory and ability to think.
The other main focus on cholesterol levels revolves around being careful about the amount of cholesterol we consume in our diet. Ancel Keys was an American scientist who studied the influence of diet on health, particularly heart disease. Through his research he came to the conclusion that “There’s no connection whatsoever between cholesterol in food and cholesterol in blood. And we’ve known that all along” Ancel Keys, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota 1997.
It would be extremely difficult to consume enough cholesterol for the body to perform all the functions it has to do effectively. Fortunately the liver produces any shortfall; so eating less cholesterol in the diet will have no impact on the amount in the body, as the liver simply always makes up any shortfall. The body very cleverly determines its own cholesterol needs. So what is it that dictates how much cholesterol our bodies need to function? If we take a look at cholesterol transportation around the body we can better understand its role.
We have all heard of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, well there is actually no such thing. What people are referring to are the carriers of cholesterol HDL, (High Density Lipoprotein) and LDL, (Low Density Lipoprotein) that are produced by the liver to carry the cholesterol around the body. These are transportation molecules, as cholesterol is insoluble and so it needs to be carried through the blood. The lipid hypothesis believes that a high level of LDL and a low level of HDL can result in a build up of cholesterol in the arteries and plaque forming on the arterial walls. LDL carries the cholesterol away from the liver to sites where needed and HDL carries it back to the liver for re-processing, if the ratio of LDL to HDL is imbalanced, LDL will transport a higher amount of cholesterol into the blood than HDL is able to carry back to the liver. A healthy body will indicate a good ratio of LDL to HDL rather than looking at the levels in isolation.
One hypothesis, particularly used in western medicine, is that the high levels of cholesterol in the blood forms plaque on the artery walls. Perhaps another interpretation would be that cholesterol is an anti-inflammatory that is attracted to sites where inflammation is present. Its presence in artery walls could be considered one of helping and not damaging arterial walls.
High cholesterol is a symptom of an imbalance in a person’s health picture and not necessarily the cause of ill health. Someone with high cholesterol may have it for a variety of reasons as it performs so many different functions in the body; for example, it may be due to dehydration, extreme stress or an excessively acidic or inflammatory diet.
As mentioned before, cholesterol is part of the structuring of each cell membrane. When a person becomes severely dehydrated the cholesterol ring around the cell thickens to prevent the person dehydrating. It is a life saving function that works as a self-protection mechanism. When this happens the natural movement of vital minerals and nutrients in and out of the cell that needs to take place on a daily basis can no longer happen. It impedes the movement of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, all of which are vitally important for the body’s daily functioning. Freedom of movement in and out of the cell is no longer taking place with the cholesterol produced by the dehydrated liver protecting the fluids inside the cell.
If we take a holistic view at addressing the problem, we would look at improving the cellular movement with its day/night cycle through good dietary and lifestyle choices, supplements and appropriate naturopathic techniques.
We live in a highly toxic society to which cholesterol is a reaction. If the liver were supported and able to detoxify along with a proper diet then cholesterol would reduce for all the right reasons. Your body’s cholesterol level is right for your living circumstances. If your diet is highly processed with a high intake of sugar and excess calories this will result in a high production of cholesterol, as will a highly stressed lifestyle.
Malcolm Kendrick, author of ‘The Great Cholesterol Con’ , believes through his research that stress is the major contributing factor to cholesterol levels, be it internal or external stress factors. He cites both physical and psychological stressors that can have a negative effect; examples include major trauma/surgery, smoking, cocaine use, diabetes, poor social network, money worries, racism and bullying.
There are many natural ways to keep cholesterol under control. Increasing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the right balance and increasing the fibre and water intake in the diet can have an effect. Triglycerides, the building blocks of fat, are mixed with water in the stomach to form a course emulsion in digestion. The bile acids made from cholesterol emulsify the fat further to make it stable and are then reabsorbed and transport back to the liver, so if there is high fibre in the gut then a low level is reabsorbed meaning more is manufactured and the level of the cholesterol is lowered in the liver.
Monounsaturated fats are the most effective fats at lowering cholesterol as they lower the LDL level and raise the HDL level. A balanced diet with low levels of sugar, salt, trans fats and other processed foods will have a positive effect on reducing inflammation and therefore cholesterol levels.
There are particular foods that may assist in reducing inflammation and cholesterol. Raw vegetable juices that include dark greens can increase the quality and flow of bile and are an excellent way to ‘detox’ the liver to help it function more efficiently. Ginger helps to inhibit blood clots and the formation of LDL cholesterol. Cinnamon lowers blood sugar and cholesterol and has amazing anti-inflammatory properties and helps regulate levels of insulin.
Avoiding unnatural hydrogenated trans fats like margarine that have been man-made into a solid fat for aesthetic purposes and have been hydrogenated through a changing of its molecular structure into what we call a trans fat. A trans fat has a completely unrecognizable molecular structure to our body and our bodies are not designed to deal with them.
Any polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats can become damaged or go bad if they are exposed to light, heat or oxygen. The polyunsaturated fats; omega 3 and 6 are the most easily damaged as the vulnerable part of the fatty acid is at the double bond of which the polyunsaturated have the most, for example flaxseed oil. Saturated fat like coconut oil is very stable with very little flexibility and no bonds, which makes it the preferred choice to cook with. Try to avoid oils that have been hydrogenated (chemically saturated with hydrogen to prolong shelf life) and look for cold pressed oils that are stored in dark glass bottles and without being chemically-treated as these are the least processed and therefore least damaged.
Denmark became the first country to introduce laws strictly regulating the sale of many foods containing trans fats in March 2003, a move which effectively bans partially hydrogenated oils. The limit is 2% of fats and oils destined for human consumption. It should be noted that this restriction is on the ''ingredients'' rather than the final products. This regulatory approach has made Denmark the only country in which it is possible to eat "far less" than 1 g of industrially produced trans fats on a daily basis, even with a diet including prepared foods. It is hypothesized that the Danish government's efforts to decrease trans fat intake from 6g to 1g per day over 20 years is related to a 50% decrease in deaths from ischemic heart disease.
A balanced diet of the right undamaged polyunsaturated fats will produce the correct balance of prostaglandins to reduce inflammation, the underlying cause of all illness including heart disease. Fish oils containing high levels of EPA’s from the omega 3 EFA family in the right balance of omega 6 to 3 ratio 4:1 thin the blood and reduce inflammation and are an ideal way to help prevent high cholesterol.
High cholesterol is really a warning that your body is not happy and so looking at all lifestyle factors is a good idea. Look at how you deal with stress and difficult emotions that crop up in day to day life. Take time to meditate. Always schedule in downtime and be mindful of giving your body good rest including sleep and an anti- inflammatory diet.
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