5 Myths about Cholesterol
The science of cholesterol and heart health is complicated and we’re learning more every day. And there is a lot you can do from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective to improve your cholesterol level.
Cholesterol is a lipid that gets a bad reputation because of its association with cardiovascular disease. But did you know that cholesterol is involved in a wide variety of cellular processes? It is the building block for steroid hormones including male and female sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol. Cholesterol is an essential component of the membranes that surround all cells. This adds stability to the membrane and acts as a signaling molecule that transmits messages across cell membranes. Cholesterol is the richest lipid in the brain which contributes to optimal brain function.
Myth #1: “Cholesterol” is Cholesterol
Understanding how important Cholesterol is, we can now look at how it is made and the different types. Most of the Cholesterol in our bodies is made in the liver. Once cholesterol is created, it needs to be transported from the liver to the target cells that need it. The challenge is that cholesterol is fat soluble, and our blood is mostly water. Not a good combination. This is where the 2 categories of cholesterol come into play.
- LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein acts as a shuttle that transports cholesterol from the liver to the target cells that need it. LDL cholesterol, when in abundance, has been found to accumulate in arteries and become easily oxidized hence they have become known as “Bad Cholesterol”.
- HDL: High Density Lipoprotein (AKA “good” cholesterol) is the shuttle that transports cholesterol back to the liver. On its way back , HDL cleans up arterial plaques and as a result have become known as the “Good Cholesterol”
So “cholesterol” isn’t simply cholesterol because it has very different effects on your body depending on which type it is and its function.
Myth #2: Cholesterol is bad
Cholesterol is absolutely necessary for your body to produce critical things like vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, your sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone), as well as bile to help you absorb dietary fats. Not to mention it’s important role in the membranes of your cells.
Talk about an important molecule!
The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA “total cholesterol”) isn’t nearly as important as how much of each kind you have in your blood.
Too much LDL cholesterol as compared with HDL (the LDL:HDL ratio) may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease. However, it is not the only thing to consider for heart health. Understand that although risk is increased with higher LDL levels, it is not proven that LDL levels are the cause of heart disease.
You body makes cholesterol. We need it. It is necessary for survival and to live in optimal health. As mentioned, cholesterol makes up cell membranes and acts protect the cells. When cells become damaged the liver is signaled to increase production of cholesterol to help mend the wounded cell membrane. Cellular damage occurs from a variety of sources. It can be mechanical (traumatic injury), physical (extremely low or high temperatures, radiation), nutritive (deficiency of oxygen, vitamins and basic nutrients), chemical (poisons, chemical additives and dyes), or biological |(viruses, microorganisms, parasites). When damage occurs to a cell membrane, the body creates a patchwork of cholesterol cells for repair purposes which can eventually cause a narrowing of the arteries.
So, it raises the question, is cholesterol the problem or does it stem from the cellular damage?? Perhaps we should consider a more preventative approach towards cellular damage to keep cholesterol levels in check.
Myth #3: Eating cholesterol increases your bad cholesterol
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. It’s not from the cholesterol you eat. This is precisely why cholesterol medications block an enzyme in your liver (HMG Co-A reductase, to be exact). Cause that’s where it’s made! To date there are no studies that prove dietary cholesterol contributes or is the cause of blood cholesterol levels.
What you eat still can affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. After a cholesterol-rich meal your liver doesn’t need to make as much. Strict vegetarians who don’t get any dietary cholesterol have low blood cholesterol levels that reduce the risk of heart disease while providing the body adequate cholesterol to keep their cells happy and their hormones flowing.
Myth #4: Your cholesterol should be as low as possible
As with almost everything in health and wellness there’s a balance that needs to be maintained. There are very few extremes that are going to serve you well.
People with too low levels of cholesterol have increased risk of death from other non-heart-related issues like certain types of cancers, as well as suicide as depression has been linked to low levels of cholesterol. .
Myth #5: Drugs are the only way to get a good cholesterol balance
Lets statr this part of the conversation by saying don’t start or stop any medications without talking with your doctor.
While drugs can certainly lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol they don’t seem to be able to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol all that well.
Guess what does?
Nutrition and exercise!
One of the most effective ways to lower your cholesterol with diet is to eat lots of fruits and veggies. Up to 10 servings a day. Every day.
To manage cholesterol, it is recommended to exercise regularly ( minimum of 4 times per week), lose excess weight, stop smoking, and eat better quality fats including fatty fish, avocados and olive oil. A diet containing healthy fats will help to boost HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol. Ditch the over-processed hydrogenated “trans” fats. These types of fats are from processed foods, take out, baked goods and lesser quality oils like canola and will boost levels of LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol.
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