Why Cholesterol Gets a Bad Rep

November 25, 2018
Editors note: I am not a medical practitioner nor am I certified in nutrition or health. Through research, personal experience and testimonies from others I’ve written this post. If you plan to make any changes to your lifestyle I recommend talking with your doctor to make sure this is the right step to becoming healthy for you. We’ve all heard that cholesterol is bad. Or more specifically that there is “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol, but this language is pointing the finger at the wrong culprit. Cholesterol is a necessary nutrient for the body to survive. It’s so important that our body can make small amounts of it with no help from the food we eat. So what is cholesterol, you ask? It’s a waxy substance that’s made in the liver and vital to life. It takes 30 chemical reactions to make and is used to maintain the health of your cell membranes (the walls of the cell that give it structure). Even better, cholesterol is the precursor to steroidal hormones (sex hormones) and Vitamin D. (When you mix 7-dehydrocholesterol with UV light it gets converted into Vitamin D).

Here is where we get to “good” vs. “bad,” or better said, High-density lipoprotein (HDL) vs. Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL), both of which carry cholesterol to different parts of the body. LDL cholesterol has been labeled the “bad” one because it’s at the scene of the crime every single time. When the particle size of LDL gets too small due to oxidation from free radicals, it can wreak havoc on the blood vessel walls creating an immune response. Here the body builds a patch around the damaged vessel wall that can continue to build up if LDL keeps attacking it. The more build up that occurs, the smaller the passageway around it becomes, creating a roadblock.

HDL, on the other hand, is the ambulance that roams the streets, hence the “good guy” label. It travels through the blood picking up any excess LDL to then take back to the liver. This is why it’s important to have higher HDL levels than LDL levels and why cholesterol readings aren’t always the best look at our health since they measure the total levels and not the balance.

To dive even deeper, the enzyme HMG-CoA Reductase is used to create cholesterol, however, the statins that are prescribed for high cholesterol block this enzyme so that it can’t be made. The issue with this is that the reduction of this enzyme also reduces Coenzyme-Q10 which then reduces our abilities to produce ATP, or energy, causing our cell tissues the inability to meet their demands. This is why you’ll see symptoms of fatigue, breathlessness, heart failure, reduced sex hormones, and muscle pain as a result of using a Statin. Your cells can’t give you the energy you need for all these things to work correctly, and the other chemicals this helps produce are inhibited. (If you have been prescribed statins, this is a conversation to have with your doctor about your specific medical history. Statins can be helpful for patients in the short term and have helped many to lower their cholesterol to life-saving levels.)

Cholesterol is essential and making it out to be the bad guy isn’t the right answer. It’s the free radicals that are the real bad guys (smoking, environmental pollutants, excess sugar, inflammation, etc.) Here are a few tricks to lowering cholesterol with your diet.

Low Glycemic Diet

The reality is that a low glycemic diet will help with most health problems, specifically the ones involving inflammation, from bettering your skin to improving your diabetes to lowering your cholesterol. Sugar was never meant to be eaten in the amounts we eat today, and our bodies go haywire with it. Insulin stimulates the production of the HMG-CoA enzyme (the ones that statins prohibit) which will turn into cholesterol whether we need it or not. Not only that but insulin spikes can cause the oxidation of LDL which we already know is the problem. By limiting your simple carb intake, switching from white grains to brown, getting rid of processed foods, and increasing your proteins, healthy fats, and fiber intake, cholesterol levels will start to decrease. 

Omega 3 Fatty Acid

Omega 3 short-chain fatty acids include DHA and EPA both of which can be found in oily fish. The ALA that’s found in plants takes a lot more energy to convert into these other forms of Omega 3 and can only convert .5-4% into the short-chain fatty acids. DHA and EPA are vital nutrients for any issues around inflammation. They help lower triglycerides (fat) in your bloodstream which can help increase your HDL cholesterol levels. If you can, eat fish 3-5 times a week (freshly caught, not farm-raised) or get a supplement with 500mg EPA and 250mg DHA.

Fat-Soluble Antioxidant

Fat-soluble means that the nutrient lives in your fat and stays in the bloodstream for less amount of time, unlike water-soluble vitamins. (Vitamin C is water-soluble which is why you’re told you’ll pee it out.) The best fat-soluble antioxidants for cholesterol are Beta and Alpha Carotene, Lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-cryptoxanthin – all carotenoids. These provide a great source of Vitamin  A among other things. Carotenoids are found in foods that range in color from orange, red, and yellow, which just goes to show, eating colorful foods will make all the difference.

It’s easy to see why cholesterol has gotten such a bad reputation even though it’s not the underlying issue. Free radicals caused by pollution, smoking and chemical exposure combined with a high sugar diet that keeps insulin levels up producing chemicals that increase our production of LDL cholesterol are the perfect storm for inflammation and our body’s natural reaction to try and heal itself. If you’re struggling with high cholesterol, the first thing to pay attention to is which cholesterol you’re high in. An overall reading isn’t a great reflection of where you stand but see if your HDL is higher than your LDL. Of course, talk to your doctor about how these numbers are affecting you and what the best approach to getting healthy is for you. If taking a statin for a short time will help you get things under control while you change your diet, that just might be the step you need to start feeling your best.

Learn More:

What are free radicals?
Cholesterol Conundrum

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