The Great Cholesterol Myth
Cholesterol has been touted as ‘the enemy’ in recent years and prescriptions for statin medications are regularly handed out to keep cholesterol in check. In fact, the two top selling pharmaceutical drugs in Australia are statin medications.
But is cholesterol really as bad as we have been led to believe?
Let’s take a deeper look.
A quick stroll down memory lane.
Have you heard of a guy called Ancell Keys? He is the reason for the great cholesterol myth based on some very sketchy science around 60 years ago (he essentially cherry picked the countries to include to support his hypothesis and left out the ones that didn’t). If you don’t know the history and you want to geek out, you will find a stack of information freely available on the internet and some great scientific papers that have blown his theory out of the water, many times over.
And yet, the great cholesterol myth persists today. Why? Because it is highly profitable. If you go and do a deep dive into the past you will see that the sugar and processed food industry were also invested in supporting Ancell Key’s hypothesis.
I came across this great quote by Dr Malcolm Kendrick recently:
“The cholesterol hypothesis can be likened to a cathedral built on a bog. Rather than admit they made a horrible mistake and let it sink, the builders decide to try and keep the cathedral afloat at all costs. Each time a crack appeared, a new buttress was built. Then further buttresses were built to support the original buttresses.”
I think this sums up how I feel about cholesterol perfectly.
Cholesterol in the body.
Cholesterol is essential for health. Most of your cholesterol is actually synthesized in the liver, with dietary cholesterol having less of an impact on overall blood levels.
Here are some of its key roles in your body:
- It is the precursor to vitamin D (side note: most people I see in clinic have low vitamin D with elevated cholesterol)
- It is the starting material for our hormones including oestrogen and cortisol
- It is converted into bile acids in the liver so you can digest and emulsify dietary fats including fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K
- It forms a key part of every cell membrane in your body (and if there’s not enough cholesterol to use, it will replace it with other fats that just don’t perform the same way; it’s kind of like substituting a drunk karaoke singer for Pavarotti at the opera – the rest of the performance falls apart and the audience leaves)
- It forms part of the myelin sheath that protects our nerves and brain (in much the same way as it does with our cell membranes)
Hopefully you can now see how important cholesterol is for your physical and mental health.
Understanding your blood test results.
A standard cholesterol panel includes total cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides.
Total cholesterol has traditionally been linked to heart disease, however even leading cardiologists are now disputing this correlation. In fact, inflammation of blood vessels caused by numerous factors including poor gut health, infection, chemical exposure, alcohol and franken-foods (to name just a few) are now thought to be the most likely drivers, NOT cholesterol.
What causes total cholesterol to be high? The number one (and two) cause is early-stage insulin resistance and fatty liver disease.
HDL and LDL are actually transport vehicles that move cholesterol around the body and not cholesterol itself. LDL has been labelled as ‘bad’ as it carries cholesterol from the liver to body tissues where it makes the good stuff our body needs such as hormones and vitamin D. HDL is apparently ‘good’ because it carries cholesterol from the tissues back to the liver for storage when the body has made too much.
Good and bad? I don’t think so. Both processes are essential for health.
Triglycerides measures the fat floating around in your blood, so the obvious goal here is to not have too much of it. But again, did you know that poor bile flow and gall bladder function, as well as blood glucose issues and early-stage fatty liver can also drive the numbers up?
So how should you interpret a high cholesterol test result?
Your body is inflamed. If you have an autoimmune disease, down-regulating autoantibody production and inflammation from all contributing factors will bring your cholesterol down, without the need for medication.
What statin medications do.
Statins inhibit an enzyme called HMG CoA reductase, preventing the biosynthesis of cholesterol in the body. However, in doing so they also impair the body’s production of ubiquinol, commonly known as CoQ10.
CoQ10 is a master antioxidant and an essential component of energy metabolism, which is why so many people experience side effects when taking statin medication. These can include significant fatigue, muscle fatigue and soreness and cognitive issues. Also remember the key actions of cholesterol noted above – these will also be impaired.
How to reduce cholesterol, naturally.
Here are my top tips:
- Eat an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean style diet that is high in plants, fibre and essential fatty acids
- Keep the sugar and carbs to a minimum and focus on wholegrains over processed carbs
- Avoid or minimise alcohol, processed foods and inflammatory oils e.g. canola, vegetable and other seed oils
- Sleep well, move your body, drink plenty of water, manage stress and prioritise self-care
- Eat oats – they are full of beta glucans (and a stack of fibre) that have been clinically shown to reduce cholesterol levels
- Deal with the key drivers of inflammation for YOU – if you don’t know what these are, work with a Naturopath and watch your life change
Do you have high cholesterol and want to avoid medication? Do you have an autoimmune or inflammatory disease that is not well controlled? Are you ready to change your life and get your mojo back?
I highly recommend looking at the work of Cyndi O’Meara, who has researched and presented multiple papers and written about it extensively in her book Lab to Table.
Denise Berry is a Naturopath and Nutrigenomics nerd who specialises in autoimmune and inflammatory disease. She is a passionate advocate for educating, empowering and transforming women with autoimmune disease and has helped hundreds of people improve their health and wellbeing.