By now you’ve probably been told that you need to “watch your cholesterol” levels, especially as you age. Maybe you’ve gone in for a physical and routine lab work and your doctor came back to point out that your cholesterol is on the higher side and that they want to monitor that. In this article we’re going to go over what cholesterol is, what those numbers really mean and what you need to do.Is cholesterol really bad? Read this article now! Click To Tweet
Let’s get straight to the point here…you need cholesterol. It’s what makes your cell membranes fluid. Cholesterol turns into hormones, bile acids (which help breakdown fat) and Vitamin D. But it’s got a bad wrap for being the cause of artery clogging. (That’s true, but you’re going to see why).
Keep this in mind…your body is like a factory that takes a raw ingredient and turns it into some finished product. If a factory wants to put out more product it puts in an order for more raw ingredients.
Raw Ingredient = Cholesterol
Finished Product = Hormones/Bile Acids/Vitamin D
Typically when I see a patient with elevated levels of cholesterol I always look “downstream” to see what “finished products” are deficient. And I will usually find hormonal imbalances, digestive disturbances and low levels of vitamin D. Are you surprised?
So let’s get logical now…if the finished products are running low doesn’t it make sense that the body instinctively raises cholesterol levels and will crave foods that will increase cholesterol? Does it make sense to give a cholesterol lowering medication?
Ok so if you’ve wrapped your head around this concept we need to start looking at why the end products of cholesterol metabolism are running low.
The first two (hormonal imbalances & digestive disturbances) are always linked to STRESS! To simply this very complex process…when you stress your body prioritizes surviving over thriving. This means that digestion/detoxification, making a baby and protecting against foreign microbial invaders are pushed to the back burner. The goal during stressful times is to survive! Pre-historically these stressors were actual physical stressors like getting chased by a tiger. But modern day, we rarely face physical stressors. We face even deadlier stressors: psychological stressors!
Vitamin D deficiencies are also linked to chronic stress (due to the immunosuppressive reaction), obesity, lack of sun exposure and liver/kidney issues. In practice I usually see patients who have dysfunctional liver & kidneys. This means that they’re still functioning, but at suboptimal levels. Remember, the main function of these organs are to detoxify the body, but it has a dozen other functions it must do.
The demonization of Cholesterol
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the demonization of cholesterol. In 1910 researchers began to notice that autopsies performed on heart attack victims contained large plaques within the arteries. These plaques were made of cholesterol. Then another research project was done where rats were fed a diet high in cholesterol and heart disease developed and thus the conclusion was finalized: cholesterol is the cause of heart disease.
With this knowledge, researchers then set out to discover the mechanism to block excess cholesterol production. Then in 1987, after much research & development, the FDA approved Lovastatin, the first commercially available statin.
Ok…but doesn’t something seem weird here? If we know that cholesterol is important to body function why would the body keep producing it if it would eventually cause death? From an evolutionary biological perspective, this wouldn’t be fit for survival. But alas, more research was needed and many researchers found that there’s more to the story than what we’ve been told.
A follow up to the Framingham study found that “after age 50 years there is no increased overall mortality with either high or low serum cholesterol levels.” Many more studies came out to suggest that high levels of cholesterol did not contribute to heart disease. Some studies even suggested that low levels of cholesterol was a contributing factor to heart disease. Wait, what? Can you see why the US population is so confused on this subject? Now let’s throw in the average medical doctor pushing statins on their patients because of elevated total cholesterol levels. Yes, let’s discuss that for a minute.
You go in for a routine physical and they draw some blood to see your biochemical markers. A few days later they tell you that you have elevated cholesterol, you’re at risk for a heart attack, and they suggest you be on a statin. You trust your doctor so you comply. Then a few weeks later you start to notice muscle aches and pains. Oh yeah, that’s one of the side effects of a statin drug, it not only blocks the production of cholesterol, but also the production of CoQ10 which is essential for muscle function. Hold on right there…if your muscles need CoQ10 to work properly, why would you want to block that from happening. And, if you think about it, your heart is a muscle. Dun-dun-dun…
Ok, let’s get back on track and start to summarize things. Here’s what we know so far:
- You need cholesterol to function properly
- Cholesterol plaques do cause heart disease
- Cholesterol is the precursor to hormones, bile acids & vitamin D
- Statins do block the production of cholesterol
- There isn’t a direct correlation between cholesterol levels and heart disease incidence
- Statins also block the production of CoQ10 which is essential for muscle function
- Your heart is a muscle that demands high levels of CoQ10
What’s the deal?
It still surprises me that MDs are still prescribing statins with all the research out there. And also while neglecting the real issue behind cholesterol as a causative factor of cardiovascular disease. And then there’s the changes to what’s considered normal. The real deal is oxidation of cholesterol & homocysteine, inflammation, and the high consumption of sugars & gluten. As you know, the body is complex, and there are numerous factors for issues like this. Below I list the 4 major reasons for altered cholesterol production.
Oxidized Cholesterol & Homocysteine
Researchers have found that the oxidation of cholesterol is one of the main causative factors for atherosclerosis. When cholesterol becomes oxidized it essentially becomes more “sticky”. The mechanisms for excess homocysteine and cardiovascular disease is not clear, but the correlation is irrefutable. Homocysteine has been shown to decrease the antioxidant glutathione.
Inflammation will cause vasospasm and a cascade of biochemical reactions. An interesting finding of why statins actually work to help reduce cardiovascular disease has to do more with its ability to block inflammation rather than cholesterol production. Studies have found that elevated levels of “CRP” (an inflammatory marker) was linked to peripheral artery disease.
Insulin levels rise in accordance to sugar consumption. Increased sugar consumption will lead to increased inflammation. Insulin sensitivity has been shown to be linked to cholesterol metabolism. There is also a direct correlation with insulin resistance and increased cholesterol production.
Gluten has far reaching effects on the body. One study found that implementation of a gluten free diet improved lipid profiles.
First things first, if your MD is wanting to prescribe a statin because your total cholesterol is elevated always ask “why” and “can you provide me studies that show a correlation between elevated total cholesterol and cardiovascular risk.”
Second, ask for a more complete lab analysis that includes:
- 25-OH Vit D
- Oxidized LDL
- Fasting Insulin test
Correlate all of that to get a more clear confirmation that you have cholesterol issues. But still don’t just jump into the statin pool. This leads us to the third action step…
Ask your doctor to work with you to create a lifestyle plan that will help decrease the risk factors rather than just giving you a medication (wait for the funny look on their face…if you get resistance, it’s time to find another doc). Remember, medications have their place, but it shouldn’t be first line therapy. Most of the chronic health issues we’re facing in the world are all reversible with dietary & lifestyle changes. This plan should be individualized according to your biochemical makeup and will change as your body changes.
If you need further help and want to work with someone who can help you navigate this journey, consider working with me on this issue. We’ll take a look at your overall health history and then create your plan. Plus I’ll hold you accountable to the plan.
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