Here, we take a look at cholesterol by learning what it is, the important role it has in our body, and healthy ways to manage it.
We’ve all heard it. Some still believe it.
Cholesterol is bad.
Clogging arteries, damaging the heart, and causing chronic disease.
Keeping cholesterol low is of the utmost importance to live a long, healthy life.
What if I said that some of these claims are misleading and not entirely true? We hear it so much that when you say out loud “cholesterol is good and is not the enemy,” it sounds odd. I think more information needs to be shared about the benefits of cholesterol and the misconception that cholesterol is bad needs to be a thing of the past.
Cholesterol is present in every single cell in our body. Without this organic molecule, we would not be able to function, grow, or live. It is vital for our existence and is so essential that the body makes cholesterol itself, not relying on outside sources alone. It helps all of our organs work properly and aids in the production of hormones, fluids for digestions, and vitamins.
But what exactly is cholesterol? It’s also known as a type of lipid (fatty acid) molecule called a sterol. It travels in the blood within little “packages” called lipoproteins. Most people have heard of “good” cholesterol, known as HDL, and “bad” cholesterol, known as LDL. For years, LDL has been said to cause atherosclerosis and heart disease while HDL has been said to help promote good health by removing bad cholesterol from the body. Past studies have shown abnormally high LDL levels predict future cardiovascular disease. So yes, there is an association. Individuals with CVD (cardiovascular disease) presumably have high LDL levels. But remember that association is much different than causation.
Here’s an example. Imagine you see something on fire and call in firefighters for help. The number of firefighters will increase at the scene as they try to put out the flames. They are the first responders and are there to protect the community and keep everyone safe. So do you say the firefighters must have caused the fire since there are now several firefighters at the scene? No! However, there is a clear association with fires and the presence of firefighters, but that in no way means the firefighters caused the fire. In reality, something else caused the fire, like an oven that was left on or an electrical problem. Association does not mean causation.
Now let’s look at cholesterol like we look at firefighters. Cholesterol is the first responder when there’s injury within the body. It aids in repair and works to keep the “scene” (our body) safe and healthy. And since CVD causes injury, cholesterol is usually elevated with CVD. But does that mean that cholesterol is causing CVD? Absolutely not. Pinpointing what causes cholesterol to rise will likely be the actual cause of heart disease. And what could that be? Inflammation!
Many things cause an inflammatory response within the body. One thing that wreaks havoc in our bodies is processed foods. These unnatural foods are made with toxic ingredients that are recognized by our body as foreign invaders. When something inside our body is identified as foreign, the body responds with an inflammatory response, creating tissue swelling and irritation. Since cholesterol helps all of our organs work properly, the body sends extra cholesterol for healing and restoration in the event of an inflammatory response. So when cholesterol levels are elevated, it is likely due to some other factor, like processed foods, that caused an inflammatory response.
Unfortunately, instead of tackling the actual cause of the internal inflammation, statin medications are often prescribed to those with elevated cholesterol levels. Statins completely inhibit the production of cholesterol in the body; therefore, wiping out most of the cholesterol. Why get rid of the first responders (cholesterol)? Should this really be the first choice to lower cholesterol? After all, rising cholesterol levels is in response to damage, irritation, or inflammation. Will strictly reducing cholesterol levels protect us from heart disease or atherosclerosis?
Actually, no. Many recent studies have shown that people with low levels of LDL (remember, the “bad” kind of cholesterol) become just as atherosclerotic as those with high levels of LDL. So, despite LDL levels being high, people are equally as likely to suffer from atherosclerosis.
Although statins have an impactful anti-inflammatory effect and are necessary in some instances (high cholesterol can be genetic), the pros and cons need to be carefully discussed before beginning these medications. Since cholesterol is essential in the formation and repair of tissues, those taking statins experience many unwanted side effects like muscle aches and tenderness, headaches, difficulty sleeping, abdominal pain, forgetfulness, dizziness, cognitive decline, severe liver injury, and even cancer.
Here recently, doctors are questioning their prescribing statins for the treatment of high cholesterol. One cardiologist explains that so many patients who come to the office for a follow-up after taking statins still look sick and continue to feel horrible. She goes on to say that she trained more than 80,000 hours to become a cardiologist, with 0 of those hours spent on nutrition. Also, when doctors fail to follow cholesterol guidelines (basically, not prescribing medications as the primary treatment for high cholesterol), insurers send letters “scolding” them.
No, it is not healthy for cholesterol to be abnormally elevated. But instead of focusing only on the high cholesterol levels, let’s find and treat the underlying reasons for cholesterol rising in the first place. I’ll bet that the majority of irritation and swelling comes from eating unhealthy, unnatural foods.
How to fix this problem is quite simple and effective. Creating a dietary guideline that only includes whole, natural foods should be the first step in lowering cholesterol, repairing damage, and decreasing inflammation. Aim to consume foods high in fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and plant sterols. All four of these nutrients naturally help scale down inflammation and improve heart health. Fiber binds to cholesterol and flushes it out of the body. Antioxidants prevent plaque build-up within blood vessels. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and lower triglycerides. Plant sterols block cholesterol absorption within the digestive tract.
Here are foods that can naturally repair damage within the body, thus decreasing unhealthy levels of cholesterol.
- Sesame Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Almonds, Walnuts, Pistachios, and Macadamia Nuts
- Flaxseed and Wheat Germ
- Oats and Barley
- Broccoli, Corn, Lettuce (especially dark leafy greens), and Brussels Sprouts
- Blueberries, Strawberries, Avocado, Apples, and Grapes
As with most foods, aim for organic and non-GMO to receive the most nutrients and benefit.
Although lifestyle changes don’t work for everyone in the effort to lower cholesterol, it is important to acknowledge what is causing cholesterol to increase. It’s wise to attempt healthier eating habits and to stay active before beginning certain medications that cause many unwanted side effects. Even the Mayo Clinic recommends taking steps to lower cholesterol more naturally by consuming heart-healthy foods, starting a healthy exercise regimen, and eliminate smoking and alcohol.
I hope this has shed some light on what cholesterol is and why it’s crucial to really discover the root of health problems versus turning to medications for the first method of treatment.
Read more of the article by Dr. Elizabeth Klondas HERE:
Read more of the article by the Mayo Clinic HERE: