You hear so much about cholesterol being bad all the time. Maybe you even take medication to treat high cholesterol, or you know someone who does. However, is all cholesterol bad? Could it be you actually need cholesterol to have good health? You might be surprised to learn what the real science says about high cholesterol and heart attack risk. Let’s take a closer look at this substance that has some worried and even more confused.
Essential for Life
The fact is, cholesterol isn’t by itself bad or good. Like water, cholesterol is a component of every cell in your body. If cholesterol didn’t exist, you would have no cells in your body, which means you wouldn’t even have a body. Cholesterol helps form cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D and bile acids which help with fat digestion. Cholesterol is also a major player in brain function, such as in the formation of memories. The substance is also a vital precursor to naturally occurring steroid hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen and cortisone.
How much cholesterol is in your body? A man weighing 150 pounds normally produces about 1 gram of cholesterol per day, and his body carries about 35 grams of cholesterol at any given time, which is mostly contained within the cell membranes. Most cholesterol in humans is synthesized in the liver, but a significant amount comes from your diet too.
So, What’s So Bad About It?
Cholesterol gets a bad rap partially due to a confusion in terms. Of course, there are related substances found in your bloodstream that are truly dangerous. Still, cholesterol is only a component of these substances called lipoproteins, and not all of those are bad, either.
Lipoproteins are actually molecules made up of proteins and fats. Fat doesn’t dissolve well in blood, just like oil doesn’t mix with water. That’s why fats, like cholesterol, must bind with proteins to be transported to where they will be useful like building cell membranes.
Low-density lipoprotein (or LDL) is what is commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol. In the past, it was believed that all LDLs increase your risk for things like heart attack and stroke. However, as scientists got to know the molecules better, things became more complicated. For instance, LDL comes in various sizes, and the larger molecules aren’t believed to be harmful.
The problem appears with the small dense LDL particles that can squeeze past the lining of your arteries and get stuck there. Once these small dense LDLs accumulate, they begin to oxidize. This eventually leads to inflammation and plaque formation inside the blood vessel. As this gets worse, it results in narrowing and hardening of the arteries. This can then cause symptoms, for example, chest pain or even a heart attack.
Just because small dense LDL exists, however, that doesn’t mean you should automatically take a drug if your LDL is high.
Remember, there’s even a “good” cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL is favorable since it scavenges cholesterol from your body and blood vessels. The cholesterol is taken up by HDL, and then gets transported to the liver where the cholesterol is recycled to be used again.
Inflammation Can Kill You
If someone shot you with an arrow in the leg, would you want a medicine that just stops the bleeding? Of course not — you would want the arrow taken out. In a way, cholesterol-lowering drugs are like drugs that would stop the bleeding in this example. The problem is that they don’t address the main cause. High cholesterol may actually be a natural response to a different problem: inflammation.
Chronic inflammation can be measured in the body by measuring C-reactive protein (CRP). It looks like CRP may be an even better marker for measuring heart attack risk than LDL. Why is it believed that high cholesterol is a response to inflammation? Because when under stress, the body gears up to produce more cells and, therefore, produces more cholesterol.
Could High Cholesterol Actually Be Good for You?
In a manner of speaking, high cholesterol is actually a normal response from the body. This brings to mind the question: Does it make sense to lower cholesterol at all? In fact, some studies show that people who have a high CRP and a high LDL are actually at less risk for cardiovascular disease than those with a high CRP and low LDL. So for these people, high LDL cholesterol may actually be protective.
Reactionary Medicine or Just Big Business?
When doctors discovered they could measure cholesterol, it wasn’t long before they found out that people with high cholesterol are at higher risk of heart attack. What they didn’t ask though was why the cholesterol was high in the first place. They just assumed that by lowering cholesterol levels that the risk would be lower.
There’s considerable debate surrounding the benefit of medications that lower your cholesterol. On one side of the spectrum are those who say the benefit is huge, even for some who don’t have high cholesterol. On the other side, they say it’s all just a scam by pharmaceutical companies to milk people of their money.
It turns out that many doctors who make recommendations about lowering cholesterol also are funded by the companies that make the drugs. These conflicts of interest muddy the waters making it hard for doctors, let alone the general population, to know how to remain healthy.
What to Do
Despite the controversy, it might not be a good idea to stop taking your cholesterol medication or not get your blood cholesterol checked. However, you also may want your doctor to check your CRP level.
If you do have high cholesterol, you should consider the possibility that inflammation is playing a role in the process. A large amount of evidence points toward inflammation being of more importance, and danger, than cholesterol.
Move It or Lose It
Every single article you read about cholesterol will recommend exercise to help deal with the problem. This response is common in almost every area of medicine. Still, we tend to look for easy answers, like pills, to take care of our problems. However, cholesterol-lowering meds can cause a whole host of side effects including liver dysfunction, muscle damage, nerve damage, memory problems and even depression.
Exercise not only can lower your cholesterol, but it also helps improve the function of every organ in the body and even helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It should come as no surprise then that the best way to increase your HDL (“good” cholesterol) is through exercise.
Here’s a list of things that may increase inflammation in your body:
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Emotional stress
We’ve already mentioned exercise, and we shouldn’t need to say that smoking is terrible for you. Emotional stress, however, is not so easy to deal with. Our modern lifestyle is often stressful. It also can lead to unhealthy habits, such as overeating, which makes things even worse.
It’s important to address issues of stress proactively. Whether it’s getting professional counseling or adopting relaxation techniques, don’t let stress rule your life. You may not be able to change your life circumstances, but you can change how you deal with them. Again, exercise is an excellent stress buster.
Most cholesterol related advice focuses on what you can’t eat, but what about food that fights inflammation? If you’ve been paying attention, then this concept makes much more sense as far as overall health benefits are concerned.
Some of the best natural anti-inflammatory foods are those rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Besides protecting the heart, these foods have been reported to help prevent:
Here’s a list of some of the healthiest foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids:
- Cod liver oil
- Chia seeds
- Flaxseeds (ground)
- Hemp seeds
- Egg yolks
As you can see, many fish make the list. Plus, you might be surprised to find egg yolks on the list, since these have always been forbidden for those who have high cholesterol.
Consult, Learn and Improve
The debate about cholesterol will no doubt continue to evolve over time. Self-education on the topic is vitally important. Don’t just go with one type of information either. Remember, even alternative medical sources may have economic interests behind their advice.
When you go to see your doctor, if he or she wants to put you on pills right away, you might want to look elsewhere. If you’re already on medication, ask your physician if you can revisit the issue based upon the latest medical insight.
The worst thing you can do is be complacent about it. Take charge of your health. Make concrete changes to improve and educate yourself, and then make informed decisions for yourself.
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C-Reactive Protein test to screen for heart disease: Why do we need another test? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/c-reactive-protein-test-to-screen-for-heart-disease
The Cholesterol Myth That Is Harming Your Health. Retrieved from https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/08/10/making-sense-of-your-cholesterol-numbers.aspx#_edn8
Statins and the Prevention of Heart Disease. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamacardiology/fullarticle/2599102
15 Omega-3 Foods Your Body Needs Now. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/omega-3-foods/