Despite what you have been led to believe cholesterol isn’t really all that bad for you. In fact, cholesterol is pretty good for you in more ways than one, and if your body suddenly lost all the cholesterol in it you wouldn’t actually live very long.
Cholesterol is important for a number of reasons. It is a structural component in all cell membranes and plays an important role in cell permeability. Cholesterol also helps the liver to form bile acids to break down fat in digestion, and is a precursor to steroid hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, and helps form vitamin D.
When doctors talk about how bad high cholesterol is for you they don’t necessarily mean that cholesterol causes heart disease but that it is a risk factor of potential heart disease. (In scientific terms this is the difference between correlation versus causation). Heart disease is caused by a large number of factors often working in conjunction to ultimately cause someone to have a heart attack or stroke. Stress, family history of heart disease, smoking, diabetes and/or obesity all can play a role in causing heart disease.
Fun Facts About Cholesterol:
- Having a total cholesterol level of 150 mg/dl is considered good while a total cholesterol count of above 240 mg/dl is considered bad.
- When we measure cholesterol in the blood we are actually measuring lipoproteins. This is because cholesterol molecules (lipids) are not soluble in blood and need to be attached to a protein to be able to be transported through the body.
- Doctors will often refer to “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol”. Bad cholesterol is called LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) and is responsible for taking cholesterol out of the liver and transporting it to various cells around the body. Good cholesterol is called HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) and is responsible for taking cholesterol out of the cell membrane and transporting it back to the liver for disposal.
- Recommended levels for LDL are below 130 mg/dL, preferably 100 mg/dL and HDL should be above 40 mg/dL.
- Triglycerides are also measured in standard cholesterol tests. While cholesterol is a “building block” lipid, triglyceride is an “energy” lipid. Generally speaking, the more total carbohydrates and fat you eat the more likely you will have increased triglyceride levels.
- Cholesterol levels can swing widely by hour, day, week, and month. That is one reason why doctors recommend that you fast for 12 hours before taking a blood sample for a cholesterol test. A wise doctor will not recommend any cholesterol lowering drugs until the patient has had at least 5 different cholesterol tests over a significant time period.
- Lifestyle modification (i.e. healthy eating, regular exercise, healthy body weight, quitting smoking, etc.) is the best way to lower your bad cholesterol, increase your good cholesterol, and lower your triglyceride level
Remember that high levels of cholesterol are considered risk factors that have a correlation with heart disease, but not a causation with heart disease. (Correlation vs. Causation). And there isn’t even a correlation at all with dietary cholesterol and total blood cholesterol. 80% of blood cholesterol is synthesized in the liver, not taken from dietary cholesterol. So yes, you can still eat your high cholesterol foods with abandon.
Think again what cholesterol is used for and I bet you can figure out what makes “excess” cholesterol go away rather quickly.
For starters, quite a few studies have shown that people with higher vitamin D levels have lower cholesterol levels. Could it be that getting enough sun exposure uses up cholesterol to make vitamin D thereby lowering overall cholesterol levels? Yep.
How about eating fat? Cholesterol helps make bile acids which break down fat. Those same bile acids also help in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Vitamin E has actually been shown in some studies to prevent or delay coronary heart disease because of it’s antioxidant properties. Does this mean a low fat diet could actually be hurting you more than helping you? Yep.
The key of course is to eat the right kinds of fats in the right amounts. More on this later, but for the time being you should avoid all “trans fats”. These are fats produced when polyunsaturated fats from corn, soybean, and other oils are exposed to heat and hydrogen gas to make them solid. These trans fats simply don’t exist in nature and are created by an industrial process. You might know them better as the hydrogenated vegetable oils found in a large variety of foods.
Lastly, Testosterone and Estrogen both decline as we age. Also cholesterol rises on average as we age. Correlation or Causation? You get to decide.
At the end of the day, there are more important things we can be discussing about health than cholesterol, but with all the hype surrounding cholesterol it is good to be educated on the facts.
This is our 14th challenge in The Personal Health Challenge Series…
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