Cholesterol is a substance that almost everyone has heard of, but it is most often put in a negative light. That is not surprising because what most people associate it with is high cholesterol and its relation to heart disease and other health problems. However, the truth is that we would be in trouble without cholesterol. It performs some very necessary functions in the body, but high cholesterol is simply a matter of too much of a good thing. It can get very confusing when all the different types and numbers associated with cholesterol are bandied about. Let’s see if we can nail down the basics and get a better understanding of this important health issue.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found in every cell of the body. Our bodies manufacture cholesterol in the liver, and it is transported throughout the body via the bloodstream. When we produce cholesterol, the process is called endogenous synthesis, and our bodies normally make all the cholesterol we need. It serves many purposes, including digestion of fats, producing hormones, strengthening cell membranes, and is even involved in the absorption of vitamin D from sunlight. The other source of cholesterol, and the one that typically causes health problems, is ingested into the body through the foods we eat. The highest amount of dietary cholesterol is found in animal products such as meat, poultry, shellfish, and dairy. Since these foods compromise a large part of the Standard American Diet (SAD), it is no wonder that unhealthy and dangerous levels of blood cholesterol run rampant in the United States. Combine this with a passive lifestyle, and the result is an epidemic of heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S. It is estimated that about 50% of American adults, over 100 million people, have elevated cholesterol levels. The “treatment” of high cholesterol has become a huge source of income for the pharmaceutical companies, but as we will see later in this article, there are safer and more effective alternatives to lower cholesterol than these dangerous drugs.
How Are Cholesterol Levels Measured?
A simple blood test is all that is needed to determine the levels of cholesterol in the body. It is important to understand the various types of cholesterol that exist, and the proportions in which they are present. It can get confusing, because some factors are better off on the low end of the scale, whereas others are given good grades for being high. Let’s try to get it all straight.
All the components of cholesterol are linked to proteins, and are transported in the blood stream by substances known as lipoproteins. They are basically cholesterol-protein “packages.” The various types of lipoproteins make up the different factors involved in understanding the big picture when it comes to cholesterol. There are two main kinds of lipoproteins that define cholesterol:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): This type of lipoprotein is responsible for moving cholesterol from the liver, throughout the bloodstream. When there is too much LDL, it can begin to clog and harden the arteries, causing a condition known as atherosclerosis, which is a major factor in heart attacks and stroke. Sometimes LDL is referred to as “bad cholesterol.” A subtype of LDL is called VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein).
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL): The main job of this lipoprotein is to transport excess cholesterol back to the liver. Elevated levels of HDL tend to lower the risk for heart attacks and stroke. Hence, HDL is sometimes called “good cholesterol.”
- A related substance is another type of blood fat (lipid) called triglycerides. Excessive amounts of triglycerides are also an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
OK, now that we know the building blocks, let’s see if we can understand the numbers. In general, you want the LDL, VLDL, and triglycerides to be down, and the HDL to be up. There are recommended ranges for each of these, but they are not written in stone. Factors such as your own health history, family history, and your lifestyle should be taken in to consideration when interpreting these numbers. Cholesterol levels are all measured in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) from a fasting blood sample. The guidelines are as follows:
- Total cholesterol (LDL plus HDL) should be under 200 for the general population. The “normal” range is considered 120-200.
- Recommended LDL levels are dependent on your health history and the following risk factors: age (over 45 for men, and over 55 for women), physical inactivity, if you are a smoker, or if you are overweight. LDL should be under 160 if you are generally healthy or if only one factor is present. LDL should be under 130 if you have two or more factors. If you have had coronary heart disease, such as a heart attack or a coronary bypass operation, LDL should be less than 100.
- HDL levels should be a minimum of 40 mg/dL.
- There are also two ratios that are important in determining your cholesterol health. They give us information regarding how well the body is doing at managing the amount of cholesterol present.
ü Total cholesterol to HDL should come in at no higher than 4.2
ü LDL to HDL should measure no greater than 2.5
- The final figure to consider is triglyceride levels. These should be under 150 mg/dL. Levels from 150-199 are borderline high; those from 200-499 are high; those 500 and above are labeled very high.
- In case I haven’t thrown enough numbers at you, let me toss out a few more statistics. For every 1% drop in LDL, the risk of heart attack decreases by 2%. In addition, for every 1% increase in HDL, the risk of a heart attack drops by about 3-4%.
These guidelines can be helpful, but recent research has indicated that these numbers are not all there is to it. For example, some people genetically have “abnormal” readings in their cholesterol levels, but they may or may not develop heart conditions. A lot of the effects of high cholesterol have to do with other lifestyle factors, such as the amount of physical activity and/or the diet. One study compared an Irish dairy farmer with his white-collar brother in the United States. Both men registered similarly high readings in their cholesterol levels, but heart disease was not present in the farmer, while it was in the American. The Irish farmer actually consumed a more high-cholesterol diet than his American brother, but he also engaged in much more intensive physical labor. So you cannot assess the risk for heart disease solely on your cholesterol numbers.
Other findings have pointed to a specific form of LDL called lipoprotein a, or Lp(a), as one of the major villains in atherosclerosis and heart disease. This form of LDL contains an added protein called apolipoprotein that has adhesive qualities that cause it to more easily stick to artery walls. Some studies have indicated that high Lp(a) levels are ten times more likely to trigger heart disease than high levels of normal LDL.
The size of cholesterol particles in the blood is also a factor to be considered. Some people inherently have smaller cholesterol packages traveling through their blood stream than others. Researchers believe that the smaller the particles, the greater the risk for heart disease. There is even a test that can be done by taking a blood sample and using a centrifuge to determine the size of cholesterol particles. This may help in predicting the chance of a person developing coronary disease.
What Can Be Done if I Have High Cholesterol?
There are really two answers to that question: the traditional allopathic “solution” that suggests the use of medicine as the first line defense. The drug companies are making a fortune off this line of thinking, because it seems that everyone in the U.S. has high cholesterol. An estimated 12 million Americans use anti-cholesterol drugs, mostly of the statin variety. But there are a couple of major problems with this “therapy.” The most obvious one is that, typical of mainstream medicine, these drugs do not address the main problem: a poor diet and lack of physical exercise, the curses of the American people. As with many drugs, the symptoms are treated, but the real cause is never dealt with, as in: “Take your medicine, and go to McDonald’s for lunch, and everything will be alright.” But it does not stop there. Some studies indicate that long-term use of statin drugs may actually increase your risk of heart disease. There is hard evidence that some statin drugs lead to muscle weakness, including the muscle of the heart. It seems hard to believe, but a drug that is supposed to normalize cholesterol and heart disease, may actually worsen the very situation it is being billed to help. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in the world of prescription drugs. I would think long and hard before taking any of these drugs. Especially, because there are so many natural alternatives that one can use to effectively reduce abnormally high cholesterol levels and the associated risk of heart disease. The two biggies are diet and exercise. Exercise is pretty self-explanatory. We are designed to function best when we get at least 30 minutes a day of heart-pumping physical activity. Without it we get sick, with it we are much more able to stay healthy. It’s a no-brainer. But let’s look at diet in a bit more detail:
- Diet is incredibly important to every aspect of our health, and our cholesterol levels is no exception. Just as dumping animal fats into our bodies will make us unhealthy, feeding on good things can help our bodies to get in a position to heal themselves. It also helps us to lose or maintain proper weight, which is so important to our overall health. Here are some suggestions that can help you turn the situation around:
ü Get rid of the animal fats, and replace them with high-quality forms of protein from beans, legumes, raw nuts and seeds (walnuts and almonds are especially beneficial), and certain kinds of fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fat (such as mackerel, cod, and tuna).
ü Load up on fruits and veggies. There are certain vegetables that have natural cholesterol-lowering qualities. These include: eggplant, garlic, onion, peppers, beets, and celery.
ü Flax seed (ground fresh) is a wonderful whole food that is a great cholesterol fighter. Eat your oatmeal as well (but not the “quick oats” type).
Eating well and having an active lifestyle will prevent such problems as high cholesterol from ever materializing in the first place, but if it is after the fact in your case, these measures are still the best options out there. Doing these two things well will not only deal with specific problems such as high cholesterol, but will also put you on a course towards lifetime habits that will revolutionize your health and not simply make the drug companies rich. You can learn to pursue wellness, and not merely treat disease.