Cholesterol is probably the most talked about health concern, and based on my experience with patients (and doctors), the least understood facet of health. Some cholesterol is considered “good”, some is considered “bad”, and by all means, we certainly don’t want high levels of it! Hmmm, is this accurate? Does it make sense that some fractions of cholesterol should be considered “bad”. Keep reading and I’ll help to explain this highly publicized, ill-understood (in my opinion) aspect of health.
So what is cholesterol anyway? Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol is not a fat, it is in fact a sterol. This is simply a technicality, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Cholesterol is vital to the cells in the body, as it makes up part of the cellular membrane allowing them to maintain permeability (the passage of substances in and out of the cell) and fluidity. Additionally, cholesterol is necessary for hormone synthesis (e.g.: estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, cortisol, etc.), bile acid synthesis (necessary for fat emulsification/digestion), and some fat-soluble vitamins. This article will focus mainly on the cardiovascular effects of cholesterol.
Roughly two-thirds of cholesterol is made in the body (liver) and the other one-third is gotten from diet (only animal foods – so don’t get duped by vegetarian products touting to be “cholesterol-free”, that’s a given). This simple fact says that the amount of cholesterol you eat has less to do with your total levels than other factors. If the amount of cholesterol you consume was truly related to your cholesterol levels, then vegans would be in the clear and not have to be concerned with their levels; but that couldn’t be further from the truth, as many vegans have higher than normal blood cholesterol levels.
The reason cholesterol gets so much press (aside from cholesterol-lowering drugs), is because a build-up of cholesterol (along with other substances) in the arteries can lead to plaque-formation and have grave consequences. If too much plaque builds up in the arteries and a clot forms, it can cut off the blood supply to the heart (leading to a heart attack) and/or the brain (leading to a stroke). So the question now is, or should be: “Why does cholesterol get deposited in the arteries?”, and “What can we do about it?”. And the answer is not simply because some of it is “bad”. Let me first discuss the difference between so-called “good” and “bad” cholesterol before I answer the question about why cholesterol deposits in the arteries.
These good and bad cholesterol markers are in fact carriers or transporters of cholesterol, not actually cholesterol. They are like buses or taxis. “Good” cholesterol, or high-density lipoproteins (HDL) are coined “good” because they circulate through the blood vessels and pick up cholesterol for transport to the liver. “Bad” cholesterol, or low-density lipoproteins (LDL) deposit cholesterol in the vessels, possibly leading to the eventual clogging of arteries. This is why it’s stressed that we need to have low blood levels of LDL’s (cholesterol depositors) and high levels of HDL’s (cholesterol retrievers, if you will). Now on to the next question. Why would cholesterol get deposited in the arteries. Is the body stupid? Is it trying to self-destruct by giving us a heart attack or stroke? In fact, it is doing the opposite, trying to keep you alive and well!
Essentially, cholesterol gets deposited in the arteries in order to help us. That’s right, not to kill us, but to help us. When the inner lining of arteries get damaged, inflammation sets in. Now realize, inflammation is a necessary part of the healing process, but when it gets out of control (essentially not remitting due to an inability and constant struggle to repair) we can run into problems. Chronic inflammation in the arteries (or anywhere for that matter) can be likened to a fire that can’t be put out. If this fire continues to spiral out of control, your arterial wall will continue to “burn” and possibly even “leak”. So here comes cholesterol to the rescue! That “bad” (LDL) “cholesterol depositor” brings cholesterol to the damaged area in order to put the fire out. Is that really “bad”? Do you really want a fire burning out of control in your arteries? So as you can see, it’s not bad at all, it’s in fact good if you ask me, and possibly if your arteries could speak up, they’d say it was good also. Next, in an optimally functioning body, the HDL’s, or “good” cholesterol will swing into action when healing has taken place, and transport the cholesterol back to the liver in order for recycling into other vital substances (i.e.: hormone synthesis and bile acid synthesis).
So why do the arteries get damaged and inflamed in the first place? It goes right back to the basics. One of the most common reasons would definitely be high blood sugar and insulin levels (really DIET and lifestyle). Other causes of arterial inflammation include, but are not limited to: food allergies and sensitivities, high levels of homocysteine, infections, and nutrient deficiencies. Additionally, high levels of stress hormones can begin a cascade of biochemical events that will eventually result in inflammation and poor blood sugar control. And last but certainly not least, we must consider environmental toxins, such as industrial pollutants, toxic chemicals and metals, and of course excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.
You see, your body is smarter than you think (or at least smarter than the drug companies think). It’s trying to survive, that is essentially it’s design. What happens when you cut yourself? Your body seals it up, and hopefully new tissue gets formed. Some cuts/wounds are worse than others, and the body forms a scar. But regardless, the body is doing the best job it can to heal. And so is your “bad” cholesterol. So if your cholesterol gets out of control, perhaps you’d be better off looking into the reasons why. If you lower your cholesterol artificially through medications, your body will again do it’s best job in trying to survive and heal the arterial damage – most likely by laying down calcium if it doesn’t have enough cholesterol. Hans Selye, the famous “stress” researcher, has shown that chronic inflammation (repair deficit) eventually leads to calcification. Then what? I guess we turn to stone.
Some people do have exceptionally high levels of cholesterol (that may need to be controlled with medication) due to genetic factors, but most people don’t. And many people have cholesterol levels that are too low! Remember, it’s absolutely necessary for the formation of other important biochemicals. This can be from overdoing cholesterol-lowering medication or supplements. And when medications or supplements aren’t being taken, I find that low cholesterol is the result of an under-functioning liver that needs to be addressed.
So high levels of cholesterol should really be seen as a symptom of another problem that’s taking place (and most definitely causing more problems than laying down arterial plaque). I’ll leave you with this. If parts of your house were constantly catching on fire and the fire department continuously came to put the fires out, would you blame the firemen as the problem and then force them away; or would you look to find out why all these fires continue to start?
I hope this article helped to give you a better understanding of the topic of cholesterol and how your body works.
Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiology
I am a second year Naturopath student and find this information very interesting. I was wondering what references there are to verify the information is correct? I’m finding it difficult to find any published studies or findings that confirm that cholesterol does behave in this manner to arterial damage.
Dr. Rob D'Aquila
The studies are probably more observational, and may not get into specific mechanisms. I certainly observe better glycemic control and better lipid profiles in my patients. I’d search pubmed high and low if you’re that interested in studies.
Good luck with your studies!
Dr. Rob D’Aquila