October is National Cholesterol Month

Have you made friends with your cholesterol?

Have you been told that you have high cholesterol and need to use medication? Or maybe one of your family members has had a stroke or heart attack and you are worried about saturated fats?  For many years we’ve been told by the media, health professionals and food manufacturers that cholesterol and saturated fats are bad, and can cause your arteries to clog up, leading to heart disease.  But is fat the real villain?

In fact, the current research dismisses the direct link between cholesterol and saturated fat intake with cardiovascular disease (CVD) (1, 2)

Cholesterol is essential to health

Your body makes cholesterol because it is so utterly vital, the body cannot leave it to chance that you would consume it.  Yes, you read that right – your body makes it.  If you had no cholesterol in your body you would be dead.

  • Every single cell of your body is covered by a membrane made largely of cholesterol, fat and protein. Membranes let nutrients and hormones in, while keeping waste and toxins out. If cholesterol were removed from cell membranes they would literally explode from their internal water pressure.
  • The sex hormones (and therefore the entire human reproductive system) are totally dependent on cholesterol. Not only would humans die without cholesterol, the human race would die out.
  • The human body uses cholesterol to make bile acids. Without cholesterol-rich, bile salts, the human body could not absorb essential fatty acids or the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and serious, even life threatening, deficiencies could develop.
  • Cholesterol is vital for the brain, central nervous system and memory functions (hence how the side effects of statins include memory loss, mental confusion and people generally just not feeling themselves). Even though the brain is only 2% of the body’s weight, it contains approximately 25% of the body’s cholesterol. The vital connections between nerve endings in the brain, which help to conduct the electrical impulses that make movement, sensation, thinking, learning, and remembering possible, are largely made up of cholesterol.
  • Cholesterol is critical for bones and for all the roles performed by vitamin D because, as a fat-soluble vitamin, it needs fat in order for your body to absorb it. How’s this going to happen on a low fat diet?

What about LDL & HDL?

Because fat is not water soluble, it is packaged into a carrier in the digestive system so that it can be transported around the body.  You may be mostly familiar with LDL (low density lipoprotein), which carries them from the liver to the rest of the body, and HDL (high density lipoprotein), which carries them from the tissues back to the liver. Remember, these are not fat – just carriers of fat; and those readings could be inaccurate by as much as 19% (3).  Also bear in mind that high cholesterol is not a cause of heart disease – it’s a risk factor, which needs to work in combination with several other risk factors to create the ‘perfect storm’ of cardiovascular disease.

Look at the big picture

Remember that your body makes cholesterol for good reason and consider the following.  Are you:

  • Injured?
  • Stressed?
  • Pregnant?
  • Recovering from an operation?
  • Recovering from Illness?

Any of these will encourage your body to make more cholesterol.

Have you had a cholesterol test taken at the end of winter? in the heart of winter? Vitamin D is made by sunlight on the skin and cholesterol. Your cholesterol may simply be ‘high’ right now because you haven’t turned it into vitamin D.  The high cholesterol could therefore be a sign that you’re lacking vitamin D. You may want to follow the SACN recommendations on supplementing with vitamin D3 (4).

Are Statins the Answer?

Statins are the best-selling drug of all time – is this because they are so effective? Or because of an effective marketing campaign?  Some would argue that it’s even a little more deceptive than that (5).  Statins lower cholesterol but, more importantly, do they increase life expectancy? (5)  HIGH cholesterol is associated with LOW deaths and LOW cholesterol is associated with HIGH deaths for men and women, CVD deaths and all-cause deaths (6, 7).  So, by unnaturally reducing your cholesterol levels, could you actually be reducing your lifespan?

Research (8) shows that you can take statins for years and you might gain an extra 3 days; with the cholesterol lowering (and resultant side effects which are currently the subject of class action lawsuits in the USA) being a potential price to pay.  Also take note of the patient information leaflet, advising not to take the drug if you’re 70+ years old.

If you need further information on this Dr Malcolm Kendrick (yes, an NHS GP) explains more in this short video.  I would also highly recommend his book on the subject “Fat and Cholesterol Don’t Cause Heart Attacks and Statins Are Not The Solution

How Can You Help Yourself?

  • When we eat a lot of carbohydrates (think ‘stodgy’, ‘comfort’ foods like bread, potatoes, cakes & pasta), and especially sugar, we stimulate the production of insulin. Insulin increases natural production of triglycerides, and threfore LDL (9).  The highly processed form of fructose (high fructose corn syrup), commonly added to processed foods and fizzy drinks, should be avoided at all costs (10).   A low carbohydrate diet has been shown to increase HDL and reduce triglycerides (11).
  • Your liver is the main organ which regulates the levels of lipids and cholesterol in the bloodstream. Therefore, liver dysfunction can lead to abnormal cholesterol metabolism. Bile, produced by the liver, is needed to remove any unwanted cholesterol from the body. If we don’t produce enough bile, or if it doesn’t flow freely, it can lead to reduced cholesterol clearance (12).  This can be caused by:
    • lack of nutrients needed for bile production
    • eating when stressed or in a rush
    • liver disease
    • gallstones
    • if you’ve had your gallbladder removed.
  • Support liver function and bile flow with  dandelion (13), and turmeric (14, 15).
  • Omega 3 fats (choose Fish Oil, not Cod Liver Oil) at 1.24g per day can decrease triglycerides (16) by up to 20.5% over 12 weeks (17), as well as LDL, while increasing HDL (18).
  • High intake of vegetables also provides plenty of fibre, which aids cholesterol elimination from the gut (19).