The Truth About Cholesterol

By Dr. Ramona Warren

These days, we are inundated with messages about “good” and “bad” cholesterol.  We’ve been warned that high cholesterol causes atherosclerosis (clogging or hardening of the arteries).  We’re told to reduce dietary fat in order to keep our overall cholesterol levels under 200 and avoid heart disease.  Those who can’t lower cholesterol through diet alone are usually put on statin drugs.

MP900438778But is cholesterol really Public Enemy #1?  Is it the true cause of heart disease?   The facts may surprise you.

Cholesterol is an essential fat manufactured by the liver. It is a basic building block of every cell – especially for hormones and the nervous system. Our brains are 70% cholesterol and cholesterol can be found in every cell membrane.

Our body views cholesterol as so vital to our health, that when we avoid foods containing cholesterol, our body will compensate by making more cholesterol on its own.  So, that begs the question: If cholesterol is so bad for us, why does our body make it and why does every cell in our body require it?

The primary function of cholesterol is for tissue repair.  It is used throughout the body to help reduce damage from the oxidative stress resulting from poor diet and lifestyle choices.

Oxidative stress is similar to having a splinter in your finger.  Your body “attacks” a splinter, resulting in redness and tenderness (inflammation) in the surrounding area.  A similar process happens within the blood vessels when we eat too many processed and packaged foods that contain sugar, dairy, trans fats and chemicals.  These substances are not readily recognized by the body and are attacked by the immune system.  The blood vessel becomes inflamed, damage to the inside of the artery occurs and plaque develops.  LDL has often been referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it is found in the plaque buildup in the arteries.  However, the body actually sends the LDL to the blood vessel as part of the “repair process,” much like an ambulance crew at the site of an accident.  Just because an ambulance is found at the scene of an accident doesn’t mean it caused the crash.

It’s important to note that LDL and HDL are not “good” or “bad”.  Both are necessary for the healthy function of our bodies. But LDL can tell us some valuable information.  If your LDL count is high, you should be taking a look at what might be causing the cellular damage that is requiring the extra LDL for tissue repair.  Oftentimes, things like smoking or a diet high in refined sugar and flour is the culprit.  When assessing high LDL levels, it’s also important to consider particle size.  Large, fluffy LDL particles are typically not a problem.  However, if you have an increased number of the smaller, denser LDL particles, you can have a greater risk for arterial damage. Make sure your blood lipid panel tests for particle size.

If you’re looking for an overall indicator of heart attack risk, consider your triglyceride/HDL ratio as opposed to your total cholesterol level.  Triglycerides are dangerous fats found in the blood. Triglycerides can become elevated through a diet that includes sugar and high-fat foods such as red meat, dairy products and highly processed foods.  When you divide your triglycerides by your HDL the ratio should be 2 or less. For example, if your triglycerides are 100 and your HDL is 50 (100 divided by 50 equals 2), this would be low risk for heart disease.

So, what steps can we take to reduce our risk for heart disease naturally?  Lifestyle is key.  Here are the top five steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  1. Consume healthy oils, especially omega 3 oils like good quality fish oil or flaxseed oil.
  2. Reduce sugars, grains, starches and trans fats, which are found in margarine and most processed foods, fast foods and “junk” foods.
  3. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits every day.  As a general rule of thumb, eat twice as many vegetables as you do fruits, and eat at least 50% in a raw state. This will give your body plenty of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber from natural sources.
  4. Exercise 30 minutes a day at least 5 days a week.
  5. Do not smoke.

Some of the statements in this article may have raised questions for you. For those interested in researching the issue further, The Cholesterol Myths by Uffe Ravnskov, MD, or The Great Cholesterol Myth by Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS and Stephen Sinatra, MD, FACN are great resources. Additionally, a presentation by Sally Fallon entitled “The Oiling of America,” is available on YouTube.