Cholesterol is a sterol, which is a type of fat or lipid that is found in the cells in vertebrate animals, but is not found in plant cells*. Cholesterol is a vital constituent of animal cell membranes, and it acts as a building block for the synthesis of vital hormones in the human body such as testosterone, estrogen and cortisol. Cholesterol is also necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses and Vitamin D production. As a constituent of bile, cholesterol helps to emulsify dietary fats and allow fats to be properly digested and absorbed.
The media portrays cholesterol in a way that is misleading at best. With the mixed messages and scare tactics financed by pharmaceutical companies and major food manufacturers, many people automatically categorize all cholesterol as unhealthy. Because of this, many people are surprised to learn that approximately 75% of our total body cholesterol is manufactured by our own liver! Only about 25% is obtained through the diet (animal products such as eggs, dairy, meat, poultry, fish and shellfish). As our total body cholesterol level increases, our liver’s production of cholesterol decreases, and vice versa. However, excessive dietary cholesterol and sugar intake (among other factors) can cause this mechanism to fail. As a result, the body’s blood cholesterol rises to unhealthy levels.
Healthy Blood Cholesterol Levels
A diagnosis of hypercholesterolemia means high or excessive blood cholesterol levels. About 1 in 20 individuals has a genetic tendency to develop hypercholesterolemia. The other 19 in 20 individuals develop hypercholesterolemia due to poor dietary and lifestyle habits, including a high fat, high sugar and low fiber diet, lack of exercise, smoking, alcohol and coffee consumption and poor stress management. Diabetes and obesity also contribute to the development of hypercholesterolemia and, subsequently to the development of heart disease.
High blood cholesterol levels are a significant risk factor not only for the development of heart disease, but also in the formation of gallstones, impotence, mental impairment, hypertension, colon polyps, and cancer.
The National Cholesterol Education Program has designated a “safe” total blood cholesterol level as 200 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter) of blood. Other sources advocate a healthy total blood cholesterol range between 140 and 180 mg/dl. A borderline elevation level is 200-239 mg/dl, while levels above 240 mg/dl indicate a high risk potential for developing heart disease.
The “Bad” and the “Ugly”: Cholesterol Transport May Be Key in Developing Heart Disease
Cholesterol does not circulate freely in the blood, but rather, it’s bound to specific proteins called lipoproteins. These lipoproteins vary in their lipid-to-protein ratio. Several lipoproteins carry cholesterol in the blood – these include LDL/low-density lipoprotein, VLDL/very low-density lipoprotein and HDL/high-density lipoprotein, all of which are used to assess heart disease risk.
LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and VLDL carry cholesterol from the liver to body cells. HDL (“good cholesterol”) carries cholesterol back from cells to the liver for breakdown and elimination through bile. HDL is sometimes referred to as “Total Blood Cholesterol” – it actually includes HDL, LDL, VLDL, etc., while the calculation of total blood cholesterol on a lab report simplistically includes the levels of HDL and LDL.
Cholesterol becomes “the bad and the ugly” when an excess of LDLs circulate in the blood, causing the inability of HDLs to sweep its excess back to the liver. The process of oxidation via free radical production can oxidize LDLs and cause damage to arterial walls, resulting in accumulation of plaque in the arterial walls. This plaque can later become calcified, gradually obstructing the flow of blood. Potential harmful effects include excessive platelet aggregation and clot formation.
What Can I Do to Maintain Healthy Cholesterol?
- Reduce consumption of saturated and trans-fats to <5% of total calories and increase consumption of mono-saturated and polyunsaturated fats to 15-20% of total calories (include fish and flaxseed oils, olive oil, etc.)
- Decrease cholesterol intake by decreasing animal products and increasing plant products.
- Increase soluble fiber (oat and barley bran, citrus fruits, dried beans, asparagus, bananas, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, eggplant, garlic, grapefruit, green leafy vegetables, melons, peas, prunes, raisins, squash and sweet potatoes).
- Increase garlic and onion consumption
- Decrease refined sugar consumption
- Steam, bake, roast or boil vegetables instead of frying, sautéing, stir-frying, etc. Use a non-stick skillet and water or broth-sauté vegetables. Chill meat or poultry broth until the fat solidifies and then spoon it off.
- Season vegetables with herbs and spices, rather than with sauces, butter or margarine
- Try lemon juice on salads instead of oil-based dressings
- Use oil instead of shortening in baked products
- Substitute plain non-fat or low-fat yogurt, blender whipped low-fat cottage cheese or buttermilk in recipes that call for sour cream or mayonnaise
- Choose the leanest cuts of meat (if possible choose grass-fed and organic as opposed to grain-fed and conventionally raised).
- Trim all visible fat and skin from poultry and meat before cooking
- Roast, bake, broil or rotisserie meats, poultry or fish so that fat will drain while cooking
- Manage stress effectively
- Stop smoking cigarettes
- Drink alcohol only in moderation (or not at all – this is great for your waistline, too)
I’m happy to recommend specific treatments to help optimize your blood cholesterol levels through the diet, nutritional supplements, botanical medicine, exercise, stress management, etc. Click here to book a virtual consultation!
Murray ND, Michael and Pizzorno ND, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing. 1991; 156-170.