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Cholesterol: Not Bad Just Misunderstood

Doctors say lowering cholesterol levels are a key to health, but what if they are wrong? Cholesterol is actually a lot more complicated than most people know, and is beneficial for many functions in the body.
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Everyone knows that heart disease is caused by high cholesterol. But what if this one simple fact is completely false? What if, instead of causing heart disease, cholesterol can actually help stop it?

It turns out, the leading cause of heart disease is not cholesterol, and reducing cholesterol levels without addressing the underlying issue will lead to serious health complications, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other serious health problems.

Statistics of Heart Disease

Heart disease is one of the biggest killers in America today. In fact, according to data from the Center for Disease Control one person dies from heart disease every 39 seconds in the United States alone. One in three Americans die from heart disease. Every year, about one million Americans have a heart attack. All of these heart problems are expensive. The cost of cardiovascular disease (including treatments, medications, surgeries, hospital stays, doctor visits, and related expenses) in 2008 hovered around $300 billion. This is a huge expense that is actually about 90 percent preventable, according to a 2004 study from the Population Health Research Institute.

Because heart disease is such a big killer in the United States, for decades, scientists and doctors have tried to uncover the true cause of heart disease. Around 50 years ago, scientists discovered that when someone had heart disease, they usually also had high cholesterol. Because of this connection, scientists determined that if you could lower your cholesterol, you could also lower your risk for heart disease. Sadly, this conclusion uses faulty logic, and may actually be responsible for some of the cases of heart disease we see today.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance in the body that has more functions than simply a link to heart disease. Cholesterol is a waxy, soft substance found in all cells in your body. Cholesterol helps produce cell membranes, manage hormones like testosterone and progesterone, vitamin D, stomach bile, aid with reproduction, regulate blood sugar levels, helps regulate the amount of water and salt retention in the body, and can even improve the immune system and memory function.

So, how did a substance that is so vital to the body become the demon of the medical community? It all comes down to one simple function of cholesterol- fat transfer. One of the main functions of cholesterol is to break down fat particles and distribute them through the body. Cholesterol does this because blood and fat doesn’t mix well on its own. Cholesterol can do this in two ways, by turning into LDL or HDL.

According to Dr. Ron Rosedale, the leading anti-aging doctor in the United States, there is only one type of cholesterol. LDL and HDL cholesterol are actually not cholesterol at all, but rather lipoproteins (a combination of proteins and fats). LDL particles started to be seen as “bad” because they can become small enough to squeeze through the lining of the arteries, turn rancid, and cause inflammation. Cholesterol levels increase in the blood when the arteries go through a process of increased inflammation. Cholesterol acts as a kind of band-aid for the arteries, sealing off inflamed areas and helping them to heal. If there is a lot of inflammation in the arteries, there will be more cholesterol in the blood. However, it is erroneous to think that cholesterol is what causes the problems in the arteries.

The Myth of Cholesterol

When doctors first started studying cholesterol, they saw that individuals with heart disease had increased cholesterol levels in the blood. The theory was that if cholesterol levels could be lowered, this would increase the health of a person and reduce their risk for heart disease. Foods high in saturated fat contain a lot of cholesterol, so it was theorized that by reducing these foods in the diet, individuals could reduce their blood cholesterol levels.

However, what the doctors didn’t realize at the time is that most of the cholesterol in your body is made in the liver (around 75 percent). Only about 25 percent can come from food sources, according to Discovery Health. That means that even when you cut out all sources of cholesterol, you will only reduce your cholesterol levels by, at most, 25 percent. In fact, the body self-regulates cholesterol levels on its own. When you eat less cholesterol from food, your body actually makes more in response. When you eat more, the production in the body goes down.

I Need Cholesterol?

The fact that your body requires cholesterol to function properly is not something you hear every day. The medical community has ingrained the thought that cholesterol is bad into most people’s heads. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. Your body requires cholesterol for nearly every function in the body. You cannot absorb nutrients, regulate hormone levels, or protect the body from inflammation without cholesterol. When your cholesterol levels are too low, your body is unable to do its job properly, and you suffer.

The body’s natural reaction to invaders and threats is inflammation. Inflammation is a healing process, if it is allowed to run its course. Inflammation triggers the body to act and repair the damage. Here is what happens during inflammation to keep your body healthy: 

The Body’s Response to Invaders
  • Your blood vessels constrict to stop the spread of the invading particles
  • Your blood becomes thicker
  • Your immune system is stimulated to fight invading particles
  • Cells multiply to fix the damage
  • A scar forms over the wound, sealing it off

This process occurs anywhere in the body, whether it is a cut in your finger or inflammation in the arteries. Inflammation in the arteries can lead to the “scar” of plaque. The combination of high plaque levels and constricted blood vessels that occur during chronic inflammation is what leads to an increased risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. Not cholesterol.

What is the role of cholesterol in this process? Cholesterol arrives to fix the damage from inflammation. It supplies the ingredients to repair cells and heal the damage. So yes, if you have a lot of inflammation in your arteries, it is likely you will also have high blood cholesterol levels. But rather than being the cause of the problem, cholesterol is more like a remedy. If inflammation is the fire, cholesterol is the fire truck. Using the logic of conventional cholesterol thinking, we could reduce our risk of fires by getting rid of all the fire trucks.

What Happens When You Lower Cholesterol Too Much?

It is evident that cholesterol is important for many functions of the body. Usually, cholesterol is present in higher levels when there is inflammation in the body or some other material that the body sees as an invader. Cholesterol normally repairs the damage from these sources. However, if you lower cholesterol without addressing the root cause of the damage, serious health risks can occur, according to Dr. Rosedale.

A 2000 study published in the Journal of International Medical looked at several studies from the past that showed a link between low cholesterol and a higher chance for depression and suicidal activity. In a study of 100,000 people from 1990, there was an increase of 29 deaths from accidents, suicide, and homicides over the untreated control group. A Canadian study conducted by the Laboratory Center for Disease Control in 2001 showed that individuals with the lowest quarter of cholesterol concentration were more than six times as likely to commit suicide as those with the highest cholesterol levels.

Individuals on cholesterol-lowering drugs show many unwanted side effects according to Web MD, including muscle fatigue, headaches, nausea, sleep problems, mental confusion, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation. In fact, by taking statin drugs, you are actually increasing the inflammation levels in your body, which triggers your body to make additional cholesterol.

The Mayo Clinic also lists these side effects from too-low levels of cholesterol:

  • Increased risk for cancer
  • Low birth weight (for expecting mothers with low cholesterol)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Other studies on low cholesterol have also shown scary results. A study from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997 showed that men with an average cholesterol level of 3.9 mmol/L had less effective immune systems than men whose cholesterol levels averaged 6.8 mmol/L. A 2005 study from the Instituto Nacional de Enfermedades Respiratorias in Mexico showed that many tuberculosis patients have low cholesterol levels. When these patients were fed high cholesterol diets their TB bacteria levels dropped by 80% within one week. A 2000 study conducted by the Università di L'Aquila showed that low cholesterol levels (levels below 105 mg/dl) were an indicator of increased morbidity in critically ill patients. According to data released by the American Heart Association Task Force on Cholesterol Issues in 1994, total cholesterol levels lower than 160 mg/dL can lead to increased mortality.

What Really Leads to Heart Disease?

Since high cholesterol levels are not a direct cause of heart disease, what really is? According to the National Heart and Blood Institute, leading causes are high sugar levels in the blood from diabetes, blood vessel inflammation, low estrogen levels, and high blood pressure. If you are thinking that these causes sound a lot like the side effects from cholesterol-lowering medications, you are right.

Dr. Stephen Sinatra and author of the book The Great Cholesterol Myth cites other causes that contribute to heart disease. These can include:

Sugar

Sugar can increase blood pressure, damage the arteries, and age organs. Sugar is a fast source of energy that your body likes to use because it is easy to absorb. However, too much sugar in the blood can put your body in a state of chronic overdrive. This is how it leads to damage over time. Most Americans have a diet that is too high in sugar, particularly from sources like high fructose corn syrup (which is in nearly all foods purchased at the grocery store) and simple carbohydrates.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are man-made fats made by infusing oil with hydrogen molecules. Trans facts are fats that stabilize foods and prevent oil from becoming rancid, which is why they are in most processed foods. If a food has hydrogenated oil listed as an ingredient, avoid it.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is basically when the body is under stress or attack at all times. When the body feels constantly attacked, it is always in “alert” mode, which is inflammation. As discussed above, inflammation is designed as a necessary and helpful function of the body, but it can lead to serious health risks if the body is inflamed at all times.

Contributors to Chronic Inflammation
  • Smoking
  • Emotional stress
  • Refined grains and sugars
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Oxidized oils (nearly all commercially-available oils are already oxidized during manufacturing)

When Cholesterol is a Heart Disease Risk

Although total cholesterol levels are not an indicator for increased heart disease, there is one for of cholesterol that has been proven to be dangerous scientifically. This form of cholesterol is small-particle LDL cholesterol.

LDL cholesterol is not pure cholesterol, but a lipoprotein that is created when cholesterol binds with proteins. Typically, LDL particles are large, and pass through the bloodstream without a problem. The risk, however, is when the LDL particles are small enough to enter the arterial walls (identified as pattern B). When this occurs, LDL causes oxidation, aggregation, inflammation, and enzyme degradation. This triggers a stress response in the arteries, which is tied to an increased risk for heart disease. This has been proven in many scientific studies, including a 1997 study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

How do you check if you have pattern B LDL particles? A doctor can perform a triglyceride level test to determine the concentration of pattern B LDL particles in your blood stream. If the reading is over 200, you probably have the dangerous form of pattern B cholesterol. When you have your cholesterol tested, ask your doctor to check for particle size, as it is a better predictor for an increased risk of heart disease than simple cholesterol numbers alone.

Avoiding Inflammation and Lowering Cholesterol Naturally

We can see that cholesterol is a necessary function of the body. But can there be too much cholesterol in the blood stream? Yes. When the body is under constant stress, cholesterol builds up in the blood stream in a constant battle to fight inflammation. But cholesterol is not the cause of the trouble, but merely your body’s defense against it.

So, rather than taking out the body’s defenses with dangerous statin drugs and other artificial cholesterol-lowering devices, address the problem at the source. When you do this, you will find that the cholesterol levels in your blood naturally go down, because your body is no longer under constant stress.

What can you do to bring your body out of stress-mode? The answers are simple. Exercise regularly and don’t place chemical substances in your body. Avoid processed foods and replace them with nutrient-dense foods like eggs, liver, vegetables, fruit, and meats. Limit sugar intake and cut back on your intake of refined grains. Some grains and carbohydrates, such as potatoes, are fine for most people to eat and will not contribute to chronic inflammation if you avoid the main inflammation triggers.

Naturally Lower Cholesterol Levels
  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t smoke
  • Avoid processed foods
  • Avoid trans fats
  • Avoid oxidized oils
  • Eat vegetables and fruits
  • Avoid refined sugar
  • Eat nutrient-dense foods
  • Avoid refined grains

Cholesterol: Necessary and Beneficial

Cholesterol is a necessary component of the body. With the right amounts of cholesterol, you will improve your immune system, absorb nutrients better, digest food better, have more energy, have regulated hormone levels, and a whole host of other benefits. You do not have to rely on cholesterol-lowering medication, which can actually lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other major health problems. When your body is no longer in stress-mode, it will naturally reduce the amount of cholesterol levels in the blood and you will see a reduction in risk for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Sources


http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15364185

http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/healthscience/2012/october/cholesterol-myth-what-really-causes-heart-disease/

http://chriskresser.com/the-diet-heart-myth-cholesterol-and-saturated-fat-are-not-the-enemy

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