What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance made by the liver and required by the body for the proper function of cells, nerves, and hormones. Cholesterol acts as an antioxidant and protects cells from toxins and dehydration. It is a precursor or building material for hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, aldosterone and cortisol. Cholesterol is also a component of bile and precursor for vitamin D.
How is Cholesterol Linked to Cardiovascular Disease?
Cholesterol travels in the lipids (fatty acids) of the blood stream. When lipids build up and clump together, plaque forms in the walls of the arteries. Plaque can decrease the flow of blood to vital areas of the body. If plaque continues to build long term, it significantly increases the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Help, My Doctor Says I Have High Cholesterol!
Relax and take a deep breath
LDL levels in blood are only about 29% accurate as a predictor of cardiovascular disease (CVD). From a nutritional perspective, LDL is not the only factor; free radicals are the problem, because they have the ability to damage artery walls. Free radicals can be decreased with antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E, zinc and selenium). When blood tests reveal high cholesterol levels, a doctor will often prescribe a statin drug. As a nutritionist, I ask why is the body producing more cholesterol? What is increasing the demand for cholesterol? If your body is low on vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids, it may begin producing more cholesterol to “pinch hit” as an antioxidant. Cholesterol can only be excreted if there is enough fiber in the diet. A low fiber diet can lead to high cholesterol levels. A diet high in refined sugar, refined carbs, chemical additives and trans fats from processed foods can lead to high cholesterol.
What Do These Numbers Mean?
Doctors often look at total cholesterol and use 5.2 as the cut off, considering anything above 5.2 as high cholesterol. As a nutritionist, I like to examine LDL, HDL and triglycerides separately.
For LDL (“bad” cholesterol), I like to see 4 mmol/L or less.
For HDL (“good” cholesterol), 2 mmol/L or more is fine. There are no negative health effects of slightly higher levels of HDL, so it is important to consider the values individually.
For Triglycerides, the ideal range for someone 10-39 years is less than 1.2 mmol/L and for someone 40+ years, less than 1.7 mmol/L
What Causes High Cholesterol?
Inflammation is the culprit for most diseases, and sugar and refined carbs promote inflammation throughout the body. Sugar and refined carbs are the main cause of high cholesterol. They drive your liver to create more fat in your blood, a process called lipogenesis.
•excess refined carbohydrates (white flour, pasta, processed foods, baked goods)
•excess poor quality fats (hydrogenated oil, margarine, vegetable oil, canola oil)
•deficiencies of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids
•low dietary fiber
•need for increased membrane integrity due to:
increased toxins, free radicals (chemicals, pesticides, smoking)
•low thyroid function
•menopause (causes a temporary elevation)
The Good News
“999 out of 1000 people can control their cholesterol level and cardiovascular health by nutritional means alone.” (Udo Erasmus, author of “Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill”)
In 1913, a study was done by feeding rabbits a diet high in cholesterol, then autopsying the rabbits and looking at the damage done to the arteries in the animals. All mainstream approaches to cardiovascular disease have hinged on this flawed study. The last time I checked, the typical diet of a rabbit did not contain any trace amounts of cholesterol and their bodies are not meant to process it. Bottom line: Your body needs healthy fats and is meant to process them, so do not avoid eating good quality fats simply because you have high cholesterol.
•fish – wild caught salmon, tuna, mackerel
•olive oil (use only extra virgin cold pressed organic olive oil in a dark glass bottle to avoid rancidity/free radicals. Buy smaller bottles to ensure freshness)
•garlic & onions (contain sulfur compounds that help lower cholesterol)
•tomato products (lycopene found in tomatoes can help reduce cholesterol, cooked tomatoes contain even more lycopene than raw)
serum level cholesterol can often be brought back into normal levels simply by complete elimination of sugar
•dairy is pro-inflammatory and ideally should be eliminated or at the least greatly reduced
•avoid low fat yogurt as it is high in sugar and additives
•wheat is also pro-inflammatory which increases the need for antioxidants
•reduce carbohydrates to control blood sugar
nothing white, refined or processed
•high fiber diet
those on a high fiber diet tend to have lower serum cholesterol levels than those who consume mostly refined flour and processed foods
dietary fiber promotes the flow of bile (as does our intake of healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts & seeds) and bile is made from cholesterol
•LOTS of vegetables
•two servings of fruit/day
•alcohol, soda, sugar-sweetened drinks, refined carbs and sugar are the enemy when it comes to cholesterol
A note on eggs: Don’t be afraid to enjoy organic free range eggs. The lecithin found in egg yolks will actually help to dissolve plaque on artery walls. Eggs are one of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods and a relatively inexpensive source of protein. Look for organic, free-range and pasture- raised eggs. These eggs are more nutritious, contain lower amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and higher amounts of omega-3, vitamins A and E, and beta-carotene, an antioxidant and precursor to vitamin A production. Pasture-raised eggs are the highest quality because the hens are raised on pastureland instead of in confinement, where they are fed primarily grains. The diet of pasture- raised hens is complemented with worms and bugs, which gives their eggs a higher nutrient profile.
Exercise has been shown to reduce elevated cholesterol levels. Cardio workout of any kind (even walking) for 30 minutes at a time, 3 times per week has significant effects on cholesterol.
Decreasing stress levels also helps to lower cholesterol levels.