Cholesterol is often misunderstood.
Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and country music, the slightest mention of “cholesterol” strikes fear and disgust in the minds of those who hear it.
But do you even know what it is or what it does for your body?
If your answer was “not so much”, then this guide will attempt to clear things up for you, and give you a thorough understanding of Cholesterol, so that you can make better dietary and lifestyle decisions—decisions based on fact and free of conjecture.
I present to you:
THE TRUTH ABOUT CHOLESTEROL
So what is cholesterol, really?
If you said…
That thing that’s in egg yolks that I’m not supposed to eat a lot of.
…then you’d only be half right.
The scientific definition:
Cholesterol is a sterol (or modified steroid), and an essential structural component of animal cell membranes that is required to establish proper membrane permeability and fluidity.
Which is to say that it’s a waxy, fat-like compound that is transported in the blood plasma of all animals. It’s primary function is to build and maintain cell membranes (the outer layer), but it also:
— decides which molecules can enter the cell and which can’t
— has major involvement in the production of sex hormones
— is essential for the production of hormones released by the adrenal glands
— aids in the production of bile
— converts sunlight into Vitamin D.
— is important for the metabolism of fat soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K
— insulates nerve fibers
Pretty impressive steroid, isn’t it?
That’s why our bodies make about 85% of the cholesterol currently coursing through your blood stream. Your liver kicks out about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day! The rest of it (the other 15%) comes from dietary sources, mainly foods high in animal fat like cheese, egg yolk, beef, pork, chicken, fish and shrimp.
Most ingested cholesterol is poorly absorbed, and the body also compensates for any unneeded cholesterol by lowering cholesterol synthesis. This means that dietary cholesterol intake has almost no effect on total cholesterol levels!
This is a point of confusion for many people. We’re often told to heavily consider moderating our consumption of foods that are high in cholesterol, when the truth is, most cholesterol is endogenous (originate from within us) and highly regulated by the body.
Let’s discuss this further.
THE GREAT DEBATE: BLOOD CHOLESTEROL VS. DIETARY CHOLESTEROL
When you go to your doctor to measure your cholesterol levels, he’s actually measuring the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood (your blood cholesterol level).
So if our bodies create and regulate cholesterol levels, what’s the big fuss about dietary cholesterol consumption?
It’s that extra 15%. If you naturally have high cholesterol, then that little extra can push you over the edge. This is why the American Heart Association recommends that we limit our average daily cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood by molecules called lipoproteins. These carrier molecules are important because cholesterol cannot dissolve in water (nor blood), so they need these little “taxi” proteins to move them from the liver to the cells and back again.
It is the oversimplification of the movement of these “taxi” proteins that have spawned names like “good” an “bad” cholesterol.
CHOLESTEROL: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE NEUTRAL
Let’s take a closer look at these lipoproteins and their function in our blood stream:
LDL (low density lipoprotein): “Bad” cholesterol. LDLs are the major cholesterol carriers in the blood. If too much cholesterol is present in a cell, then the liver reduces the number of LDL receptors. This means that more LDLs become present in the blood, and they can do whacky things like depositing cholesterol on artery walls, forming plaque.
Too much cholesterol (more than the body needs), means more LDL (“bad” cholesterol) running amok in your blood strew, which means more plaque in your arteries, which could increase your risk of arterial diseases.
HDL (high density lipoprotein): “Good” cholesterol. HDL does the opposite of LDL—it moves the cholesterol from the cells and back to the liver. Experts say that the more HDL you have in your blood stream, the less likely your risk of arterial diseases.
Think of HDLs like drain cleaner that you pour in your sink, but instead of removing all that dried toothpaste and cat hair, it’s removing the nasty stuff collected on your artery walls.
Triglycerides: this is the official name for the chemical form that fat exists in your body—present in blood plasma. Triglycerides, in association with cholesterol, form the plasma lipids (blood fat). The triglycerides in our blood come from the fat present in our food, or are made in the body from other energy sources, like carbs. (Cue the scary music.)
Calories we eat but don’t use for energy, are converted into triglycerides and stores in fat cells. When our body needs energy but you haven’t eaten since last night’s steak dinner, then these triglycerides are released from your fat cells and used as energy.
THE TRUTH ABOUT HIGH CHOLESTEROL (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT!)
So are you feeling pretty confident that you know everything there is to know about cholesterol? Are you less worried now about your 5-steak-per-day diet, knowing that dietary cholesterol intake isn’t as scary as “they” would have you believe?
But what is this?
You came back from your doctor and he said that your have “high cholesterol”?
What does that even mean, you ask?!
Well, before we get into “high” cholesterol, let us see what the NHS (National Health Service) has to say about “normal” cholesterol levels.
The following is a list of cholesterol levels and how most doctors would categorize them (in mg/dl (milligrams/deciliter):
High cholesterol = higher than 240 mg/dL
Borderline-high = 200 to 239 mg/dL
Best = 200 mg/dL and below
So if your doctor came back and said that your cholesterol is at 247mg/dL, then you have “high” cholesterol. But while he may be quick to tell you to cut out the eggs and take a few capsules a day of Lipitor, consider this:
There are no conclusive studies that can effectively link “high” cholesterol with heart disease.
So it’s very likely that you can take the drugs and lower your cholesterol, but still be danger of getting heart disease. The inverse is also true, you can have high cholesterol and not ever fall pretty to a heart attack.
Cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, M.D., says that the primary cause of heart disease isn’t cholesterol, but inflammation:
“Small injuries to the vascular wall—which can be caused by anything from high blood pressure to toxins—cause oxidized (damaged) LDL particles take up residence in the area. The immune system responds by sending inflammatory cytokines to the “rescue,” eventually resulting in plaque and an increased risk for heart disease.”
Here are some other, more natural, less pharmaceutical ways to fight off heart disease. (If you incorporate these action items into your daily life, you may realize that you don’t ever have to worry about cholesterol ever…EVER.)
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. (Ahem, Paleo, ahem.)
- Reduce intake of grains, starches, processed sugars and omega-6 fatty acids (to ZERO if possible. It’s possible.).
- Chill out.
- Get off your butt and SWEAT.
- Put down the cigars, Scarface.
- Supplement with antioxidants, vitamin C, Coenzyme Q10, omega-3 fatty acids.
So if there were no inflammation, then the arteries would be free and clear. Food for thought.
CHOLESTEROL AND THE PALEO DIET
The majority of people that begin eating a Paleo diet, see their blood lipids improve, there have been tests that show a significant minority of people see their LDL levels rise. This has led to some speculation that the age-old idea that eating a diet high in animal fats will negatively effect cholesterol levels.
Before allowing these tests to color what we have already learned about cholesterol, let’s go over what happens when you eat a Paleo diet and how this may effect your blood cholesterol:
Micronutrient deficiency: If you’re new to Paleo and have not been eating a wide variety of foods, it’s quite possible that you’re deficient in a few key micronutrients. Consult with a Paleo nutritionist or search the Internet for Paleo diets proven to be rich in the essential micronutrients that will help proper cholesterol production and movement.
Weight loss: When you go Paleo, you often lose weight by burning body fat rather than lean muscle mass. That means that during this weight loss phase, your body is releasing thousands of calories worth of fat into your blood stream as triglycerides and free fatty acids. This will definitely increase the temporary amount of LDLs in your blood stream, but check again when your weight stabilizes and you’ll find that everything is back to normal.
More activity than carbs: If you’re running a full triathlon every morning without giving your body the proper amount of carbs (glucose) to sustain that level of activity, your body conserves what glucose is available. In order to preserve the little glucose available, the T3 thyroid hormone is reduced. And lowered T3 can lead to lowered LDL receptors, which means more of those “bad” cholesterol taxis are cruising through your blood stream, and showing up on your doctor’s blood cholesterol chart.
If you’re new to the Paleo diet, please be aware of the above and how they effect your cholesterol before you go freaking out. Like all good boy scouts: be prepared.
WRAPPING IT ALL UP
Okay, let’s take a break. Breath in and out. Stretch. We’re now at the end of our comprehensive look at cholesterol.
Hopefully, here’s what you’ve learned:
- Cholesterol is not some deadly poison, but a natural substance vital to the cells and lives of all mammals.
- “Bad” cholesterol and “Good” cholesterol are just names given to lipoproteins that move cholesterol away from and towards your liver, respectively.
- High cholesterol and heart disease have not been proven to be directly correlated.
- Your body produces more than four times more cholesterol than you eat.
- LDLs may increase during the beginning phase of a pale diet but will often stabilize as your body adapts.
- The risk of heart disease can be lowered by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising, reducing levels of stress, not smoking, and taking supplements.
We hope that reading this guide will help you make more informed decisions about what you put into your body and what you do with it.
Go get ’em!