We often hear from our participants that they’re concerned because they have elevated levels of the “bad” cholesterol, or LDL. Their medical doctor has informed them that if they don’t get that number down they’ll have to begin taking statin drugs, or, if they’re already taking them, increase the dosage. The conventional wisdom is that higher levels of LDL cholesterol increase one’s risk of heart attack or stroke. Known side effects of statin drugs, some of which can be lethal, notwithstanding, let’s talk today about cholesterol’s role in the body and what it means to have correct levels of the stuff.
Our bodies manufacture three to four times the amount of cholesterol we eat. In fact, the production of cholesterol in the body increases as we eat less and decreases as we eat more of it. There is no evidence that consuming animal fat and cholesterol promotes atherosclerosis or heart attacks. So why would our bodies want to produce so much cholesterol? For starters, cholesterol is what makes cell walls waterproof. If there weren’t enough cholesterol to make that possible, the cells would become porous and leaky, endangering the entire body. In this way, cholesterol serves as the body’s repair material, a sort of cellular Spackle if you will. Any time there appears to be weakness in a structure, cholesterol is dispatched to shore things up, which is why scar tissue consists largely of cholesterol.
Cholesterol is the precursor to vitamin D, necessary for numerous biochemical processes including mineral metabolism. The bile salts, required for the digestion of fat, are made of cholesterol. Those who suffer from low cholesterol often have trouble digesting fats. Cholesterol may also protect us against cancer as low cholesterol levels are associated with increased rates of cancer. Cholesterol is vital to proper neurological function. It plays a key role in the formation of memory and the uptake of hormones in the brain, including serotonin, the body’s feel-good chemical. When cholesterol levels drop too low, the serotonin receptors cannot work. Cholesterol is a major component of the brain, much of it in the myelin sheaths that insulate nerve cells and in the synapses that transmit nerve impulses. Additionally, cholesterol plays a key role in managing mineral balance and blood sugar in the bloodstream. Let’s not forget corticoids, the cholesterol-based adrenal hormones that the body uses in response to stress of various types; they promote healing and balance the tendency to inflammation. The adrenal cortex also produces sex hormones, including testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, out of cholesterol.
So when we’re looking at those blood test results, what numbers should we be concerned with? The total LDL amount is far less important than the LDL weight, and its ratio with HDL (the so-called “good” cholesterol). We want to see larger-particle LDL in our bloodstreams, because the low weight LDL is what’s associated with three times the risk of heart disease. Most importantly, though, it’s the LDL’s relationship with HDL that we needs our attention. For more information on this relationship, see this article from Dr. Mark Hyman, author of Eat Fat Get Thin. Meanwhile, continue to focus on your diet – eating real foods that remember where they came from (in other words, not processed foods.) That means lots of fresh, organic vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, and judiciously selected meats. Here’s to your health!