A little hearticle about cholesterol

You may be blissfully unaware October is National Cholesterol Awareness month but it is happening.

Mention the word cholesterol and for most people, it conjures up the image of fat clogged arteries and a heart attack waiting to happen. Maybe you’ve been told you have high cholesterol and need to use cholesterol lowering medication. Perhaps a family member has suffered a heart attack or stroke and you may be concerned about eating cholesterol rich foods or saturated fat.

For many years the media, health professionals and food manufacturers have promoted the idea that cholesterol and saturated fats are unhealthy and should be avoided.

Is this warranted? What is cholesterol anyway? Why do we need it?

What exactly is cholesterol?

Our bodies have 30 trillion cells and cholesterol is needed by every one of them. It is produced by almost every cell in the body, as well as in the liver and is so essential to life having enough of it is not left to chance. If you have a liver you produce cholesterol and all the cells in your body can produce cholesterol.

The body regulates how much cholesterol is produced and delivers it to where it is needed. If there is cholesterol in the diet the body makes less, although only about 300mg of cholesterol is used from diet on a daily basis. If you consume a lot of cholesterol and the body has absorbed the limited amount it takes from the food you eat, the surplus will just pass through you. If there is insufficient the body will just produce more. The liver makes most of it and the rest is made by cells in the body.

You may be familiar with the terms HDL and LDL in reference to cholesterol.  

This does not refer to cholesterol but to lipoproteins. These are a mixture of lipids (fats) and proteins and are what allows cholesterol to travel around the bloodstream and are the delivery system for cholesterol. This is necessary because cholesterol is not soluble in water. They are like little transporters the cholesterol can hitch a ride with. LDL carries fresh cholesterol and HDL carries recycled cholesterol.

HDL is often referred to as good cholesterol and LDL bad cholesterol. This is somewhat misleading because both are required.

There are also VLDL’s (very low density lipoproteins) and these are what carry triglycerides, another type of fat, to your tissues. Serum triglycerides are one of the things that are measured when you have a cholesterol test.

Functions of cholesterol:

  • Cell walls require cholesterol to maintain stability. Without it cells would not be able to maintain the right pressure and would explode. Cholesterol helps to keep everything in balance and cells require lots of cholesterol for repair and renewal.
  • Hormones needed for blood sugar regulation, to maintain mineral balance and blood pressure regulation and sex hormones which have many different functions all are made using cholesterol.
  • The bile acids we use for digestion, particularly fatty foods, are made using cholesterol. Bile acids make it possible to absorb the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and essential fatty acids.
  • Cholesterol is vital for brain and nervous system function: The brain and nervous system are full of cholesterol. The brain is only 2% of bodyweight and yet contains 25% of the body's cholesterol. The coverings that protect your nerves, known as the myelin sheath, are 20% cholesterol.
  • Cholesterol is critical for healthy bones and in all the roles that Vitamin D has in the body. Sunlight shining directly on cholesterol in skin cell membranes turns the cholesterol into vitamin D.
  • Optimal immune system function requires cholesterol. Vitamin D is also needed for a healthy immune system and cholesterol optimises levels of this crucial vitamin. Our immune cells rely on cholesterol to help fight infections. Studies have shown low cholesterol levels increase the risk of strokes and cancer.
  • Cholesterol is a very effective anti-inflammatory.

It could be said human beings are just not viable without cholesterol!

What is high cholesterol telling you?

The body produces cholesterol according to its needs. The amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream varies from day to day and season to season. Taking a blood sample to test cholesterol levels represents but a brief window in time.

So what does an increase in cholesterol tell us? What do the numbers on the test results mean?

Just as a red warning light on a car dashboard indicates a problem and is not itself the problem the results of a cholesterol test can be indicators of a problem. It would make sense to address the causes of a problem and not simply deal with a symptom.

High cholesterol is not a disease, but it can be a marker for disease. It could be considered a risk factor but this doesn't make it the cause and studies have concluded that cholesterol is not a reliable predictor of heart disease.

It’s important to remember the total cholesterol number is not as important as knowing the ratios of the other numbers. Ideally HDL should above 2 and serum triglycerides need to be below 1.

Want better answers? Ask better questions...

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, what would that ounce look like?

Looking through the lens of history can provide some answers. What have we been eating since the problem got worse? How have our diets changed? How has our environment changed? Where can we go from here?

It is important to note that cholesterol is only found in real food. Is it logical to believe that nature would put anything in real food to kill us, let alone in the same foods that contain all the vital nutrients that sustain life? And that these real foods have been consumed for centuries without causing the sky-rocketing incidence of heart disease that we are seeing?

This is where looking for the root cause of the problem is crucial and much more beneficial than focusing on the symptoms. Getting all of the available information in the proper context is vital. Once this is done an appropriate course of action can be decided.

How can we make the right food choices?

It can be quite confusing to know what to do when there is so much conflicting information out there.

Let’s consider how our diets have changed. We now have access to so much food, all of the time. Historically this never used to be the case. Much of what people consume is made in factories and we have no control over what ingredients might sneak in under the radar, such as hidden sugars.

Sugar is the enemy, not fat. Modern diets loaded with carbohydrates and refined sugars stimulate production of insulin which in turn increases the levels of triglycerides, which in turn impacts on the results of a cholesterol test. So if carbohydrates drive up this number it would make sense to lower the amount of carbohydrate we eat to bring things back into balance.

The fruit we have available to us now is much sweeter than what our ancestors would have eaten. It is best regarded as nature’s candy and not something to be consumed in any significant quantity. Just because mangoes and pineapples are available in the middle of winter doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to eat them out of season.

Some sound and simple principles to follow in creating a healthy way of eating are:

  • Eat real food.
  • Eat seasonally and eat locally as far as possible.
  • Eat food that you have prepared with good ingredients.

Not only will this be kinder to our pockets and it will be so much better for our well-being.

To your good health.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Naomi Rowling

I am a qualified nutritional therapist, based in West Oxfordshire and working in the Guildford area.
I help clients to discover the most sustainable way of eating and how to make effective lifestyle choices.
I work by assessing all the information from a detailed health questionnaire and what we discuss during the consultation, to get to the root cause of your symptoms.
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