Is cholesterol okay?
This is the ever popular concern many people have when starting on a high-fat diet and is exactly what kept most of us in a fat phobic state for decades. There is so much information in the literature now regarding the essential role cholesterol plays in a healthy body. Unfortunately, the truth regarding the benefits of cholesterol has been suppressed by special interest groups (e.g. pharmaceutical and food lobbyists).
It is widely known now that without cholesterol we would not be alive and that there are multiple essential life sustaining roles of cholesterol.
Let me see if I can dispel some of the myths, and get you eating your egg yolks and not worry about clogging your arteries while doing so.
In this two part series I discuss what cholesterol is, the roles of cholesterol in our bodies, why we need it, why we were steered away from it, what happens when cholesterol gets oxidized, how it gets oxidized, what happens when cholesterol levels gets too low (which has become so prevalent because of statin overuse and misuse), and proper testing to ask for when you go and get your cholesterol levels checked.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a necessary component of every cell in your body. Seriously without it you would not be alive. That cholesterol is vital for life cannot be understated.
Cholesterol is an organic molecule, a waxy lipid found in every cell membrane and our blood plasma. It is hydrophobic, meaning it cannot dissolve in water (or blood) but dissolves well in oil. This makes it necessary for cholesterol to be carried around the body packed up in lipoproteins (what you know as HDL and LDL). Cholesterol has many jobs, including being one of the main building blocks to keep cell membranes functioning properly. Many cells have half of their membrane made up of cholesterol.
We eat cholesterol, and it’s found primarily in animal products although plants have trace amounts as well. We also make cholesterol in our liver and our cells. It comes in two main forms, unesterified and esterified, and this is important to note because it distinguishes between cholesterol that can be absorbed or not. Much of the cholesterol we eat is esterified so our gut does not absorb it. Most of the cholesterol we make is unesterified so after it passes into our gut through the gall bladder it is reabsorbed and reused. Thus, dietary cholesterol has very little influence on blood levels of cholesterol or increased cardiovascular risk.
What you eat does influence the type of cholesterol that is made by your liver. It matters most what type of fat you are eating and if you are over consuming refined carbohydrates. Refined vegetable oils and trans fat (hydrogenated fats) lead to the production of abnormal cholesterol (hang tight, you’ll understand this after you read part 2 of this series), while saturated fats and Omega 3 fats have been shown to improve overall cholesterol profiles when combined with a low carbohydrate diet. Saturated fats are in fact known to raise HDL levels, what we know as the good cholesterol.
Sugar in the form of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and over consumption of any carbohydrates is the true culprit when it comes to cholesterol. All the sugar you ingest converts to fat in your body if you don’t burn it quickly as energy. The liver produces fat (in the form of triglycerides) and cholesterol, a process called lipogenesis, in response to excess sugar and carbohydrates. It’s this type of cholesterol that increases overall cardiovascular risk.
For now let’s focus on the real benefits and roles of cholesterol.
- An integral part of cells, it is required for proper cell function and communication across cell membranes,
- Insulating to neurons, making up 20% of the protective myelin (coating for nerve endings).
- Required for the production of sex hormones, can’t make testosterone, estrogen, or progesterone without it,
- Required for the production of bile acids, so that you can digest fat and get rid of toxins,
- Required for the synthesis of Vitamin D,
- Is a major component of all brain cells, the brain has about 25% of all our cholesterol.
- Required for the production of cortisol, the most important hormone for handling stress.
- Required for regulating mineral metabolism, especially calcium and sodium.
- Necessary to metabolize fat soluble vitamins,
- Required to repair muscle breakdown after intense exercise and illness.
- And higher levels of cholesterol, in most cases are associated with a longer life span.
As mentioned above, cholesterol is critical for Vitamin D synthesis. It is well understood without proper synthesis of Vitamin D, we don’t have proper immune function, calcium cannot be absorbed, we generally don’t feel as happy, and our brains don’t work as well. There is a reason that mother’s milk is rich in cholesterol and has a specific enzyme that allows a baby’s system to absorb close to 100% of it.
But we were told for over 6 decades to stay away from cholesterol. Why?
It all has to do with funding, government, big Pharma, food giants, and of course ego. To sum it up in the shortest way possible, it started in the 1950’s with a researcher by the name of Ancel Keys and the diet-heart hypothesis. Keys began driving the idea that saturated fat was the main cause of cardiovascular disease. His major study, The Seven Countries Study, known now to be fundamentally flawed research, was initially crafted to present data supporting his case against cholesterol and saturated fat.
What his research actually showed, was that saturated fat had no correlation with increased heart disease rates, was buried for decades.
Keys was an extremely driven man with ties to the American Heart Association, and this combined with his unrelenting ego paved the way for his flawed research to take hold and drastically change the way we were to view food for the next 60 years. He was able to convince the political, scientific, and medical establishments to accept his Diet Heart Hypothesis and since then they have yet to admit they were wrong. What followed was decades of low-fat eating, increased vegetable oil consumption, hydrogenated fat consumption, increased consumption of refined and processed foods, and thus major increases in rates of cardiovascular disease, Type II Diabetes, and Cancer and chronic disease. Nina Teicholz has a great book explaining all this called The Big Fat Surprise and you’ll find reference to why this all happened in almost every progressive health book you read.
What happens when cholesterol levels get too low?
This is a major problem we are faced with now as the use of cholesterol lowering statins continues to increase. Cholesterol lowering drugs interfere with the body’s ability to produce cholesterol and we cannot eat enough to compensate.
When cholesterol levels get too low people become more susceptible to a wide variety of cognitive issues like, memory loss, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and brain fog. This is usually accompanied by:
- emotional instability,
- including increased anger,
- depression, anxiety,
- and aggressive behaviors.
Hormonal imbalances become prevalent since the body cannot make sex hormones and stress hormones without cholesterol resulting in symptoms like chronic fatigue, low sex drive, low performance, and low mineral absorption.
Infections increase and the body’s ability to fight infection decreases. Every immune cell needs cholesterol to conduct its jobs. It’s been shown that people with higher cholesterol have a greater resistance from infections, recover from colds and flus quicker, and don’t get sick as often.
It’s known that only at super high levels (above 350) is cholesterol a problem and this occurs mostly because of a specific gene mutation. Having the wrong ratios of cholesterol, too many of the wrong particle sizes, and high triglycerides, brought on by intake of poor fats, excess carbohydrates, and sugar, will also contribute an increase in cardiovascular risk. I’ll go into this subject in part 2.
Although most of the body’s cholesterol does not come directly from the food you eat, you do still get some good cholesterol from what you eat, and there are certain cases of nutritional deficiencies and toxicity that keep people from producing enough of their own. Eating cholesterol is important in these situations.
So what foods are best to eat to ensure you are getting enough?
Egg yolks, cod liver oil, fish eggs (caviar), butter and ghee, cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), and animal fats are the best sources.