BIG BAD CHOLESTEROL. For over 50 years we have been taught to think of it as the evil demon who is out to send us to an early grave. While elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood are linked to heart attacks and strokes, cholesterol is a vital part of our physiology and without it we'd be in deep do-do. In this edition of the Blissful Blog, we're going to take a look at the important roles cholesterol has in our bodies, the reasons why things can go amiss and the simple things we can do to keep our cholesterol in check without harmful medications.
What Is Cholesterol and What Does It Do?
Cholesterol is a lipid (fat) that is manufactured mainly in the liver, although, with the exception of our brain, all of our tissues can make it. It is present in all of our cells, especially the liver, brain and nervous tissues, and the blood. Cholesterol is also found in animal foods such as egg yolks, meats and other animal fats, including milk. It is not found in any plant foods and it cannot be made by plants. The roles of cholesterol in the body are:
What Makes Cholesterol Levels Get Too High?
Our bodies are amazing machines are are always working keep us in a state of homeostatis or "balance". When it comes to cholesterol, our body is constantly monitoring cholesterol levels and adjusting the amount of cholesterol it makes in order to keep things in balance. When it detects that levels are too high, it will slow the manufacture of cholesterol and vice versa when it detects that levels are running too low. Cholesterol has been made the "bad guy" in cardiovascular disease, causing arterial plaque and obstruction of the arteries. However, the cholesterol in our foods is not the villain and the cholesterol our bodies manufacture is certainly not the villain either. The biggest culprit is the oxidized cholesterol in the blood, and the level of this is a direct function of total dietary animal fat intake. There are other factors at play as well, including genetically determined aspects of cholesterol metabolism. But, don't think that blaming "bad genes" for high cholesterol is your valid excuse because as more and more research on Epigenetics surfaces, it has become a well known fact that genetics do not solely determine your likelihood of disease. There has to be a nutritional or environmental trigger to kick those genes into action.
The main contributing factors to excessive cholesterol in the blood are:
HDL and LDL
I want to set the record straight on HDL and LDL. HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) and LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) are lipid carrier vessels which carry cholesterol to and from the liver. For years, the LDL transport system was viewed as carrying cholesterol out of the liver to the rest of the body and the HDL system was viewed as carrying cholesterol from the body back to the liver. The result was that the LDL system was viewed as the "bad guy" and the HDL was viewed as the "good guy" because it could lower our cholesterol by bringing it back to the liver for eventual elimination via our bowel movements. But, as more research has been done on this subject, researchers have changed their opinions on this topic. Today, LDL is less the bad guy and HDL is still a good buy but not for the reasons originally thought. The disease preventing effects of HDL aren't as connected with its liver transport of cholesterol as they are with their ability to calm the immune system and reduce inflammation. This all said, I want to be clear that it is still important to focus on increasing our HDL levels and maintain or lower our cholesterol to healthy levels.
How Can We Naturally Lower Cholesterol?
The Truth About Statins
Okay, hold up...I'm not recommending statin medications to lower cholesterol because clearly, they are not a natural solution. But I think it's important to touch on them and the dangers they pose. In 2012, sales of statin medications (Lipitor, Crestor, etc.) soared to over $29 BILLION in the US alone, making them the most prescribed medication in history and the numbers just keep growing. Statin medications are a huge money-maker for Big Pharma and they pay huge money to see that doctors are trained to prescribe them and prescribe them often. But statin medications come with a heavy cost...a cost to the health of those that take them. These medications rob the body of nutrients that are vital to our heart health. The most important of these nutrients is CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant that our bodies make and is required for energy production in the mitochondria of each and every single cell.
Statin medications completely block the enzyme required by the body to generate CoQ10 thereby cutting off the supply of CoQ10 to every cell of our body. This is dangerous stuff considering that the cells of our heart muscles have multiple mitochondria which rely on CoQ10 to function properly. Using statins, and the resulting lack of CoQ10, will leave you feeling pretty darn crappy. These are just a few of the side effects of statins that our happy pill-prescribing medical system will happily treat you for:
How about that for some doom and gloom? This is no joke. Statins are horrific and the scary thing is that millions of people will be put on them each and every year and they won't bat an eye about taking them. They will also be told that statins are their only option, be given some inadequate counseling to the effect of "you should reduce cholesterol in the diet" and will be told that once they're on statin meds they will never get off them. Again, the majority of these people will just go along with a lifetime of pill popping because that's "just how it is" and there is no other option. Well, I'm here to tell you that there is another option, so read on.
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: If you are reading this and you are on a statin medication, I am not...I repeat NOT telling you to stop taking them. I am warning you of the dangers and telling you that there are other options to explore.
#1 - FOLLOW A WHOLE FOODS PLANT-BASED DIET
A what?! A whole foods (foods that do not have ingredient labels), plant-based (foods that come from plants and not animals) diet. Now I know many are reading this thinking "okay, whole foods makes sense....I can do that. But plant-based? That is just plain CRAZY TALK". Well, let's look at it this way....
Now that's some food for thought.
A whole foods plant-based diet is by far the #1 thing that you can do for your cardiovascular health. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn is a world renowned physician who, along with countless other Western medicine trained cardiologists, has reversed his patients' cardiovascular disease through treating them with a whole foods plant-based diet. A whole food plant-based diet is proven to reduce cholesterol and it is loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that nourish and promote vitality in every single cell of the body. "But we need animal foods for protein". NO YOU DON'T. That is a myth perpetuated by agribusiness. While there are definitely nutrients in meat there is also artery clogging and inflammation promoting saturated fats and acidity that do more harm to our health than the vitamins and minerals do good. There is a mountain of peer reviewed research proving the benefits of such a diet on coronary health and there are countless success stories of people who have adopted this kind of diet and seen their serum cholesterol drop like a stone in as little as 10 days. The proof is out there and it is irrefutable.
I believe strongly in this evidence based advice, and it is the advice that I give my clients. However, I understand that not everyone can adopt such a way of eating right away or even at all. But I ask you to think about this..,if given a choice to control the symptoms a problem that has a potential to kill you with a health wrecking synthetic drug or actually eliminate that problem by changing dietary habits, what option makes more sense? I know what I would choose. But if you simply cannot eliminate animal products out of your diet, my second course of advice is to drastically reduce the amount you eat. By that I mean no more than three 3oz servings per week with a focus on wild caught fish followed by organic grass fed meats. Meat should not be the "star of the show" when it comes to your dietary habits. It should be a bit part...a "minor supporting actor with very little lines".
#2 - INCREASE DIETARY FIBER
Now this will just come naturally if you opt to follow a whole foods plant-based diet. The more plant-based foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains you can include the diet, the more fiber you will get. The minimum amount of fiber we should be consuming each day is 35g. However, the average North American is getting a measly 15g each day. It is a well established fact that the fiber contained in fresh fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains is effective in lowering cholesterol levels. There is an abundance of evidence to show that those with high cholesterol levels experience a significant reduction with frequent oatmeal or oat bran consumption. Aim for a bare minimum of 35mg per day with a goal of 50mg per day of fiber and you will see your cholesterol levels drop and experience the added benefit of reduced inflammation, extra energy and an overall feeling of wellness.
#3 - INCREASE YOUR INTAKE OF OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS
There are over 300 clinical studies which show the benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids in lowering triglyceride levels and protecting the body against cardiovascular disease. Daily supplementation with a good Omega 3 product is essential for improving cardiovascular health but it is also important to augment that supplementation with daily dietary Omega 3 fatty acids. Cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and haddock contain high levels of Omega 3's. There are also many plant foods that are high in Omega 3's including chia seeds, flax seeds/flax oil, hemp hearts, walnuts, avocados, cashews, pumpkin seeds, olives and olive oil. A good healthy Omega 3 fatty acid should be a part of every single meal, every single day.
#4 - GARLIC...GET IT IN YOU
Not only does garlic taste and smell amazing, it has the amazing power to help lower blood cholesterol. There are many studies that prove the cholesterol lowering effect of supplementing with garlic (specifically the active component, allicin). Garlic supplementation has also shown blood-pressure-lowering effects, inhibition of platelet aggregation and prevention of LDL oxidation among other benefits. To determine the best dose of garlic supplementation, I recommend working with a certified nutritionist (like me!) or other natural health practitioner because the dose that works for one person will not be the dose that works for everyone.
#5 - REDUCE STRESS
Stress is at the root of just about every chronic illness in the world today. Stress triggers our adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, one of our stress hormones. Too much cortisol in our blood triggers our cells to manufacture more cholesterol because cortisol is made from cholesterol. Minimize your stress and you reduce the amount of cholesterol needing to be produced to meet the needs of the adrenal glands. Stress is also a factor in high blood pressure and other illnesses so it is important to always be working on ways to reduce our stress as much as possible.
Exercise is also an integral part of your cardiovascular health but there is really no need to touch on that in great deal here. We all now the importance of regular exercise, not only for our heart health but also for all aspects of health, including our mental wellbeing. Be sure to include regular exercise into your schedule. Get your heart rate up by going for a walk or taking part in any other activity that you find fun and enjoy. Your body and mind will thank you for it.
Taking care of your cardiovascular health and keeping your cholesterol levels in check is not something that you should tackle without the guidance of a qualified health professional, especially if you are already diagnosed with high cholesterol or at risk for cardiovascular disease. If you are on a statin medication, do not stop taking it without consulting with with your prescribing physician. Keep in mind that, when it comes to lowering cholesterol, there are safe and effective alternative options and by working with the right health care team you can achieve the true health and blissful vitality you deserve.
Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!