Cholesterol, Just the Fats!
By design, everything our body does has a purpose. So, why would it produce so much cholesterol if it were bad?
What is Cholesterol?
While many believe cholesterol to be a bad thing, or the result of too many eggs and bacon, it is actually a pervasive substance busy at work in many systems of our bodies. Cholesterol is a waxy substance largely produced by the liver. The body produces roughly 1000 mg of cholesterol per day, far more than it consumes through food. Cholesterol is ubiquitous. It is found in every cell of our body. But there is much more to cholesterol than high and low.
LDL and HDL Cholesterol is transported by lipoproteins, HDL and LDL, which are only two of several that are typically measured. These lipoproteins are not actually cholesterol. They carry cholesterol through the body where it needs to go. The HDL “good cholesterol” is responsible for helping to clean up damage to artery walls. The LDL, dubbed the “bad cholesterol”, is not inherently bad at all and carries nutrients through the blood stream.
There are two important categories or sizes of LDL. The large fluffy particle LDL is the healthier size that carries out its everyday transport function. However, in the presence of inflammation, sugars, and triglycerides, these particles become oxidized or “rusty” and small. This smaller particle is believed to be able to attach more readily to the artery walls and contribute to plaque formation.
Hormone Production Once Cholesterol hitches a ride on the HDL and LDL, where does it go and what happens if we take medication to bring those levels down? One major role of cholesterol is hormone production. Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is made from cholesterol. Estrogen and progesterone, the female sex hormones, are also derived from cholesterol. The stress response from our adrenal glands relies on cortisol, a hormone that depends on cholesterol for production. Another cholesterol dependent hormone, aldosterone, regulates kidney function and blood pressure. Vitamin D is, in fact, a hormone and not a vitamin at all. The production of cholesterol is part of the conversion of Vitamin D both from the sun and from our foods. You can begin to imagine the possible side effects of taking cholesterol-lowering medications.
We have learned that cholesterol is everywhere, that it is made by the body and has an important role in many functions. But the rhetoric surrounding “high” cholesterol is that it clogs arteries and causes heart attacks. For millions of years in human evolution, the body has produced cholesterol and cannot live without this molecule. Yet, not until the 20th century did we see heart disease rise as a leading cause of death in humans. What changed? Diet, agriculture, industrialization, sugar consumption, sedentary lifestyles, and the promotion of low fat diets high in carbohydrates are just a few examples. The number and size of our LDL’s is largely impacted by inflammation and other lifestyle factors. The good news is that with dietary changes, exercise, and nutritional supplementation, these rusty old LDL’s can be replaced with their healthy fluffy counterparts.
1. Change your diet. Decrease refined sugar and carbohydrates. These have been shown to damage your arteries. LDL particle size is negatively impacted by inflammation and oxidation from diets high in refined sugar and carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables contain important antioxidants. Plants also contain phytosterols that compete with cholesterol to get into the cells and circulate in the blood stream.
2. Eat healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids have been well researched showing their positive effects on HDL levels and LDL density.
3. Reduce stress. We lead busy, chaotic lives. Exercise, meditation, yoga, spiritual practice and simply slowing ourselves down have been shown to decrease cardiac risk.
4. Exercise. Get your heart rate up! 40 minutes of rigorous exercise, 3-4 times a week can have cholesterol-lowering effects.
5. Keep your liver healthy. Your liver is important in both production and elimination of cholesterol and the digestion of fats with the production of bile. Keeping your liver healthy by decreasing refined sugar and alcohol intake will help your liver regulate cholesterol production.
6. Berberine supplementation. Berberine, a compound found in many plants, has several great benefits including lowering blood sugar. One recent study showed a reduction in small size lipoproteins by 13-15%. In addition, according to a 2016 study published by the Journal of Diabetes Investigation, Berberine can also decrease the oxidation of the lining of artery walls. Seeing a healthcare practitioner for proper dosing is advised.
7. Get the proper testing. It is more important to look at lipoproteins than total cholesterol. There are many labs that offer comprehensive lipid testing examining cholesterol as well as lipoprotein particle size and other factors to assess cardiac risk. Many naturopathic physicians can do this type of testing and help you put together an individualized plan to address your cholesterol concerns. Never change your current drug regimen without the supervision of a physician.