Cholesterol has been given a bad name, and the general public has been led to believe that high cholesterol itself is the cause of heart disease. In the last few years however, there has been a small backlash against this way of thinking – the “cholesterol sceptics”, who say that high cholesterol is nothing to worry about. In fact, both arguments appear to have their flaws.
What is Cholesterol and Why Do Our Levels Increase?
Cholesterol is a natural substance made by the body. It is essential to our survival and needed for basic cellular health, our nervous system, digestive system (cholesterol is needed to form bile) and is also a precursor to steroid hormones and vitamin D.
So why would our cholesterol levels increase? Although eating high levels of saturated fat is thought to cause a small increase in cholesterol, the advice for everyone to lower saturated fat intake as far as possible has been misleading for a number of reasons. Firstly, most cholesterol is actually made by the body and has little to do with cholesterol or fat content in food. Secondly, saturated fats play a beneficial role in our health, when eaten in moderation. For more information on the benefits of healthy fats, read a previous blog I wrote, as it’s too much to fit into one blog! It’s thought that our bodies start making more cholesterol as a protective response to damage or illness. This is why high cholesterol is often seen in conjunction with disease, and can therefore be a good indicator that something is out of balance, but does not mean cholesterol itself causes the disease. This would also imply that lowering cholesterol is not the “cure” for a disease as well.
Cholesterol is carried around our body in little packages called lipoproteins, which contain other substances as well, not just cholesterol. Information can be confusing, because lipoproteins and cholesterol are often talked about as the same thing, when in fact they are not – and people can be told they have high cholesterol, when in fact it’s the lipoprotein numbers that are up. The newest thinking proposes that the connection between cholesterol and heart disease is actually due to damage which occurs to the packages (lipoproteins) carrying the cholesterol around the body. The lipoproteins are delicate and are prone to damage from toxins, infections, high blood sugar levels and also high blood pressure amongst other things. Once the lipoproteins are damaged they cause inflammatory reactions, which create havoc in our blood vessels. This is thought to start the underlying processes leading to cardiovascular disease. There are different lipoproteins doing different jobs, and some are more prone to damage than others, which is why people may be told they have a lot of “bad” cholesterol, and not enough of the “good” type.
So it’s a complex situation. It’s not just about how much cholesterol or lipoproteins are in the blood, but what type of lipoproteins, how long they are in the blood for, and what factors are present that could cause damage to the delicate lipoproteins.
A Word About Statins
There is no doubt these cholesterol-lowering drugs do significantly lower cholesterol, but this has only been shown to be beneficial for a small group of people in terms of reducing mortality, because cholesterol levels aren’t the root cause. And they have side effects too. Taking statins results in lower levels of CoQ10, which is incredibly important for energy production and healthy nerve function amongst other things. For this reason, anyone on statins should always talk to a nutritional therapist about taking a CoQ10 supplement as well.
Natural Ways to Reduce Cholesterol
There are other ways to reduce cholesterol naturally. Certain supplements, particularly vitamin B3 and red yeast rice that have been shown to be beneficial, but this needs to be done under the guidance of your nutritional therapist or doctor and must not be taken in combination with statins. However, the following suggestions are safe for everyone to use. They are aimed at both reducing the amount of cholesterol, and also preventing damage to the lipoproteins.
Eat a diet rich in fibre and antioxidants
Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is the best thing you can do to increase both fibre and antioxidant intake. Fibre is crucial for reducing cholesterol, as it carries the bile out through your gut – and bile contains cholesterol. It is a very important part of reducing your levels, or preventing a rise in cholesterol. The antioxidants from fruit and veg reduce the likelihood of damage to the lipoproteins, so they are less likely to cause cardiovascular problems.
Build up to around 7-8 servings a day. Also include nuts and seeds, whole grains and legumes such as chickpeas, pinto beans, navy beans and kidney beans.
Reduce use of vegetable oil
Industrial vegetable and seed oils, such as sunflower oil, as well as their derivative products, like margarine, contain polyunsaturated fats. These are incorporated into lipoproteins and are highly prone to damage. Previous advice was to reduce saturated fats and use polyunsaturated oils instead, but this advice is incorrect. Some polyunsaturated fats are healthy, such as those found in oily fish, but it’s important to ditch the fake butter spreads and the sunflower oil. Use coconut oil for cooking as it’s very stable and not prone to damage like other oils (including olive oil). Good quality olive oil is fine, but use if for salad dressings, and cold meals only.
Protect your liver
A healthy liver is essential for regulating cholesterol levels, because the liver acts as a “packaging factory” for all the lipoproteins. A general pointer would be to make sure you don’t overdo the alcohol and high sugar foods, but also there are some foods that are particularly helpful for the liver. These include artichokes, chicory, chard, endives, cress, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, asparagus, rocket, lemon and grapefruit.
Exercise is really important for reducing cholesterol. Although intense exercise has been shown to be particularly beneficial, just walking 10,000 steps a day is a good place to start. Get yourself a pedometer and start counting!
Reduce toxic overload
Start by stopping smoking. It not only contributes to higher toxic levels, but also increases blood pressure, another factor implicated in damage to lipoproteins and blood vessel walls. High levels of glucose in the blood, from a diet overloaded in refined sugar, can also cause damage to the lipoproteins. You don’t have to go completely sugar free, don’t worry! But do pay some attention to how often you eat sweets, cakes, biscuits or drink fizzy drinks. Just make sure you are keeping them in moderation. Also keep an eye on the hidden sugar crammed into processed foods, including savoury foods like ready meals and crisps. Use the free Sugar Smart app if you have access. It can be helpful for some people as a way of getting used to just how much sugar is packed into many processed foods.
Sources and further information: