Cholesterol Friend or Foe?
Cholesterol is a trendy topic right now; and is very much villainized, but what if there’s more to the story? Firstly, let’s learn about some of the terms and the language used when talking about cholesterol, and then take a closer look at the biomechanics and functions of cholesterol and why our current perspective might have been a bit presumptuous.
When your doctor says you have ‘high cholesterol’ what they usually mean is you have a high LDL – C level. This means you have a lot of low density lipoproteins in your blood. The reason we have these lipoproteins is that your blood is very much water based, and you know what happens when you mix oil and water together – they’re hydrophobic and will separate. Well, if this was to happen in your blood, you’d have a problem, so your incredible body evolved to package these fatty oily substances into a protein (a lipoprotein) to essentially emulsify these fatty substances to allow them to be transported easily by your blood.
So What’s the Difference Between LDL and HDL?
The difference is the simply the density, or the ration of protein to fat. The easiest way to visualise this is to think of a lipoprotein as a delivery truck. The delivery truck is the protein portion of the lipoprotein, it doesn’t matter what the truck is delivering, the protein portion stays the same. However, the truck has packages to deliver (the lipoprotein) and the amount of packages the truck is carrying determines whether the lipoprotein is considered HDL or HDL. As you can imagine, both trucks serve a different job. The LDL takes cholesterol and other fat soluble nutrients from where they are/are made(mostly your liver), to where they need to be(sites of tissue repair, inflammation or steroid glands). The HDL takes cholesterol (largely oxidized cholesterol) and other fatty substances back to the liver to be recycled or excreted.
Even More Lipoproteins
Now that we know a little about the more discussed lipoproteins, it’s important to look into the less discussed lipoproteins, VLDL (very low density lipoproteins) and chylomicrons. I made you a picture!
As we can see, these lipoproteins are all pretty much the same thing, just different sizes and ratios of fat to protein. They do different jobs, and depending on your diet, environment, stress level, and any disease processes you have occurring in your body, you’re going to need different levels of each of these lipoproteins. Something I don’t often see discussed, and is very dangerous, is elevated triglycerides, which is correlated with negative health effects including metabolic syndrome. When we expend our glucose stores, our bodies enter ketosis, a metabolic shift to burning fat for fuel instead of sugar. With metabolic syndrome, some distinguishing factors include elevated blood sugars and elevated triglycerides. In this case, overfeeding and constant blood sugar stimulation prevent the body from ever being able to enter this state, and as a result the triglycerides that are usually available to be used as fuel are never needed, but we are designed to enter this state of ketosis regularly, if not every day. Simply not eating (fasting) could be all it takes to lower not only blood sugar and triglyceride levels, but insulin resistance too.
So why do we Hate LDL-C?
The main reason that LDL-C gets such a bad reputation is because there is a correlation between heart disease and elevated LDL-C levels, but it’s well established that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. The real invisible elephant in the room here is the tissues in your body are damaged, they become inflamed. This is by no means a bad thing, in fact it’s very much a beneficial thing. When tissue becomes damaged, inflammatory molecules are released, such as histamine leukocytes. These molecules ramp up immunity and increase blood flow in the area, in an attempt to kill any pathogens causing damage, kill any tissue, and allow healthy blood to bring nutrients needed for cellular repair. The problem is CHRONIC inflammation. When inflammation persists, nutrients are gradually depleted, the immune system becomes exhausted and your body just cant keep up with the demand for repair. Coming back to LDL-C, of those nutrients used in cellular repair, cholesterol is one of the most important. Cholesterol is used in the creation of every cell in the human body. Every lipid membrane has some cholesterol. 25% of the cholesterol in a healthy person is in their brain. Every sex hormone and steroid produced endogenously by your body uses cholesterol as a precursor (yes, that’s testosterone, cortisol, and even vitamin D). It stands to reason that if your body is stressed in any way, shape or form, you NEED more cholesterol. And do you remember the job of the LDL? To transport the cholesterol MANUFACTURED by your liver to the location its required (endocrine glands and inflamed tissues).
So Cholesterol is a Villainized Hero?
Yeah, I really can’t understand how we’ve got it so wrong. The correlation between heart disease and elevated cholesterol is there, but the cholesterol is a PROTECTIVE mechanism, employed by the body, to reduce and repair inflammation – specifically inflammation in the artery walls in the case of atherosclerosis. Oh, and did I mention? Cholesterol is being studied as an antioxidant? If all of that doesn’t sway your opinion on cholesterol, I don’t think anything will.
How can I Apply What I’ve learned?
Well, we can now see the true villain for what it is, chronic inflammation. The best thing you can do is reduce the inflammatory load on your body. Reduce exposure to environmental toxins (also another topic for another day) to be brief, avoid oxidized vegetable oils, and absolutely DO NOT cook with them. Avoid sugar, particularly refined sugars. These two foods (rancid oil and sugars) will contribute to the most inflammation in the modern diet. You can also ensure you consume plenty of saturated fat, because that is what your body makes the cholesterol it need out of. Don’t avoid healthy foods because you’re scared of the cholesterol they contain. Eggs, fatty fish and organ meats will only serve to bring you the most vibrant health.