Twelve reasons cholesterol isn’t the villain

Lighter, Brighter You Blog: Twelve reasons cholesterol isn't the villain

A half-truth is a whole lie – Jewish proverb

Whenever elevated cholesterol levels and heart disease are discussed, a connection between fats and these health concerns is assumed. Let’s discuss both of these concerns and shed some light on the facts relating to them.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol – is a crystalline substance technically classified as a steroid. However, it is soluble in fat, rather than water, so it is also classified as a lipid, or a fat. It is a hard, waxy substance and melts at 149 °C. It is either supplied by animal products that we eat – which is why people who wish to decrease their cholesterol levels are instructed to keep away from animal products and food items containing them – or our bodies are capable of making it from the breakdown of sugars, fats, and proteins from the foods we eat. Cholesterol is found naturally in the brain, nerves, liver, blood, and bile of vertebrates and humans. The liver manufactures about 80% of our total body cholesterol, whereas 20% comes from the diet. About half of the cholesterol that we consume from our diet is absorbed and the other half passes through our bodies unused.

What a group of rabbits taught us in 1913

In 1913 a Russian scientist fed a group of rabbits animal fat and concluded that our response to this "food" would be the same as the rabbits' response, which was blocked arteries! This was based on the wrong assumption – i.e., that rabbits and humans process fat in a similar way. Rabbits are vegetarians and humans are omnivores. So the whole basis of this experiment was incorrect! All mammalian cells in fact require cholesterol and your body produces three to four times more cholesterol than you obtain from your diet. You will produce more cholesterol if you eat less and less if you eat more. So, if you are trying to lower your cholesterol level by eating less, your body will increase its production.

And a prominent researcher was wrong too!

Ancel Keys (1904–2004) was a physiologist who started the cholesterol and heart disease story, and ended up being called "Monsieur Cholesterol". He was interested in fats long before they’d revealed their mysteries, so he lumped all fats together, spreading the word, evangelistically, that fats have a critical role to play in heart disease. He is remembered as being a forceful, entertaining speaker, exhibiting no uncertainty in stating his answers, unlike other researchers at the time. Today we see his direct link between fats and heart disease as quite primitive, especially his "Seven Countries Study" (SCS), which showed a clear connection and was the most cited research of the time. The study involved 12,000 men between the ages of 40 and 59, from 16 different communities in Italy, the Greek isles, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Finland, Japan and the United States. Researchers at the time wondered why he didn’t include all the countries he had data on, which would have made it the "22 Countries Study". However, if all the data had been used, the graph would not have shown a clear correlation, which is probably why it didn’t see the light of day.

High cholesterol levels = increased risk of CVD?

There are many studies that have shown that the amount of saturated fat eaten does not predispose you to increased cholesterol levels or having a heart attack. Drugs are not the only effective way to lower cholesterol, and there is no evidence that these drugs have in fact lowered the incidence of CVD. In addition, they have horrible side effects that may be responsible for shortening your life. Statins lower heart disease by blocking the enzyme that makes cholesterol, but they also block the formation of Co-Q-10, which over time, weakens the muscles of the heart. Statins have led to cancer in rodents, disturbing muscle function, the heart, and the brain. They also stop the important transport of EFAs to membranes, which means that our cells can’t get the nutrients and oxygen they need to function correctly. So, anything that artificially lowers cholesterol will automatically also lowers the transport of EFAs.  The proponents of the cholesterol and heart disease connection have conveniently ignored all the evidence that is present in scientific journals. This has led to ordinary doctors and the man in the street being unaware of this information and simply following the popular but misguided traditional view.

So what is the difference between LDL and HDL cholesterol?

Tiny protein and fat compounds, called lipoproteins, help cholesterol travel from the liver to the various tissues of the body. The cells use what they need, and any extra remains in the bloodstream, until other lipoproteins pick it up for transport back to the liver. LDLs, or low-density lipoproteins are "bad" cholesterol and HDLs or high-density lipoproteins, are "good" cholesterol. LDLs carry the cholesterol to body cells, so are fully laden with the substance, whereas HDLs circulate in the blood, picking up excess cholesterol from blood and tissues. If everything is functioning well, this system works well, with LDLs being the cholesterol-to-cell carriers, and HDLs picking up the "left-overs" and taking them back to the liver to be used again with the LDLs. But if there’s too much for the HDLs to pick up quickly, then cholesterol may become the plaque that damages all artery walls, leading to heart disease, etc. So, aim to lower animal produce consumption and processed foods with saturated fats in them. Increase consumption of whole foods, leafy greens and good fats. When you eat refined sugar or are stressed, your body also produces cholesterol.

In about seventy percent of people, the feedback loop, that lowers cholesterol production within our bodies when our dietary intake is excessive, is very effective, so these people won’t suffer from excess cholesterol. However, the other thirty percent have a defective feedback loop, and they can suffer from excess cholesterol if their diets are not managed, and they eat too many animal products.

Twelve reasons cholesterol is vital for your health

  • It ensures the fluidity of our cell membranes. If our cell membranes get too hard, they can’t work properly and if they get too soft, the same thing happens. Cholesterol ensures that the cell membranes stay at the correct level of fluidity to ensure correct permeability and malleability. It is so important in this process that our cell membranes have the ability to produce their own cholesterol if the supply runs out from our diet.
  • Unsaturated fatty acids lead to good, fluid membranes, while saturated fatty acids, from animal products, lead to hard membranes.
  • Cholesterol is the mediator between these two kinds of fats, to ensure the correct fluidity in the membrane.
  • Cholesterol helps to make the steroid, or sex hormones, namely progesterone, estrogen and testosterone.
  • Cholesterol makes adrenal corticosteroid hormones, which are the hormones produced when we are stressed, scared or anxious, or better known as the flight-fight hormone, namely cortisol. This in turn stimulates the production of glucose to help with the stress response.
  • Cholesterol makes aldosterone, which helps to regulate water in the kidneys.
  • Cholesterol is secreted from glands in the skin to protect our skin from dehydration, cracking, normal wear and tear due to sun, wind and water, as well as to heal skin tissue and prevent skin infections.
  • When our stores of antioxidants are low, because our diet is deficient in them, cholesterol can act as an antioxidant.
  • It is responsible for the production of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, which occurs via the sun's action on the skin, ensuring healthy bones, a healthy immune system, optimally functioning hormones, among other things.
  • It helps to produce bile salts, which are integral to the digestion of fats, and fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Serotonin, which is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, induces a sense of calm and suppresses feelings of aggression. Low cholesterol levels reduce the amount of serotonin receptors on our neuronal membranes, thereby contributing to feelings of anxiety, irritability, aggression, and hostility.
  • It makes up a quarter of the lipids (fats) in the myelin sheath.

Conclusion

You now understood the problem. Although we can make cholesterol, we battle to get rid of it, and herein lies the problem. We need to be able to maintain this delicate balance, so that we can benefit from the important functions, but not be damaged by having too much. These are a few ways to ensure that your cholesterol levels don’t get too high to maintain optimum health. Diets rich in EFAs which are fluid, means more cholesterol (which is rigid) will be built into membranes, to balance their fluidity i.e., the simple way to reduce cholesterol levels is to consume more EFAs. Too many saturated fats (SFAs) lead to more cholesterol being moved out of membranes, and back into the bloodstream, as SFAs (which are hard) will be incorporated into cell membranes. In addition, current research shows clearly that trans fats are more likely to promote CVD than cholesterol.

References

Erasmus U. Fats that heal, fats that kill. Burnaby BC, Canada: Alive Books; 1993.

Kromhout D, et al. The confusion about dietary fatty acids recommendations for CHD prevention. Br J Nutr 2011 Sep; 106(5): 627-32.

Mozaffarian D, et al. Trans Fatty acids and Cardiovascular Disease. New Eng J of Medicine 2006; 354: 1601-1613.

Singh-Manoux A, et al. Low HDL cholesterol is a risk factor for deficit and decline in memory in midlife: the Whitehall II study. Aterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 2008 Aug; 28(8): 1556-62.