Cholesterol myths - are statins a wolf in sheep's clothing?
Posted on 10th September 2014 at 07:30
In the last few years cholesterol has been one of the media’s favourite subjects, with many column inches being devoted to it. The current focus is on statins – cholesterol lowering drugs – and proposals to automatically prescribe them to certain groups of patients on a “just in case” basis.
Sadly the picture portrayed in the media that cholesterol is bad for you is only part of the story. While it is true that excess levels in the blood stream can lead to clogging of the arteries, cholesterol also plays a vital role in the overall functioning of the body.
Here are a few of the many uses of cholesterol, which you may not be aware of:
• Cholesterol is found in the membrane around every cell in the body and helps control the movement of substances in / out of the cell.
• It plays an important part in the functioning of the brain and nerves.
• It is also essential for a healthy immune system.
• Vitamin D, corticosteroids – which help us deal with stress – and sex hormones all contain cholesterol. As do bile and insulin, needed to help digest fats and carbohydrates respectively.
The most widespread myth is that all cholesterol comes from the diet. In fact only about 25% comes directly from the diet, from foods such as animal fats, vegetable oils, dairy products and eggs. The rest, approximately 75%, is manufactured by the liver to meet the body’s requirements.
This leads us on to another widespread misconception that all cholesterol is the same. However this is not the case, as there are two different types, each with its own particular characteristics:
• High density lipoproteins (HDLs), so called “good cholesterol” helps to clear cholesterol out of the arteries where it can cause problems.
• Low density lipoproteins (LDLs), is the “bad cholesterol” on which most media coverage focusses. LDLs can build up in arteries, so making them narrower and less flexible. This in turn can lead to blood clots, heart attacks or strokes.
This difference means that the results from blood tests for cholesterol can be rather confusing, as figures for both types are needed to give a complete picture of what is happening in the body.
While all the negative press about cholesterol is a relatively recent phenomenon, you need to look back to America in the 1950’s for a complete picture. At that time research – much of it funded by the vegetable oil / margarine industry – appeared to link heart disease to raised cholesterol levels in the blood. This led to people being encouraged to cut down on animal fats and replace them with margarines and vegetable oils, which contained polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats.
Unfortunately, this has not had the desired effect, as cholesterol levels – and heart disease – have increased steadily since then. In addition, it has recently become apparent that the method used to process vegetable oils – known as “hydrogenation” – produces transfats, which cannot be used by the body to make cholesterol; as well as free radicals which can damage cells. Transfats have also been linked to a number of other health problems. This is the reason why some supermarkets have recently stopped using hydrogenated fats in their convenience foods.
The current “safe” level for cholesterol has recently been reduced yet again and now stands at 7 to 5 mmol / litre; leading to a rise in the prescription of statins, such as Simvastatin and Atorvastatin. Statins work by blocking enzymes in the liver, so preventing the manufacture of cholesterol.
A number of side effects have been reported, particularly muscle weakness and headaches. More worryingly, recent research has also linked them to type II diabetes, which has been on the rise in the past few years. While there has been increasing coverage about side effects in recent months, it does not appear to have had any impact on their prescription.
From a holistic – and hopefully commonsense (!) – point of view, the issue of cholesterol does not appear to be as simple as some would have us believe. While diet does undoubtedly play a part – again reinforcing the need for a whole food diet rich in oily fish, fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds – lifestyle is equally important.
Since the 1950’s our way of life has changed dramatically, particularly the pace of life and stress levels. We are less physically active and don’t take time to listen to the needs of our bodies.
Sadly, these issues are often overlooked in the cholesterol debate, as many people would prefer to “pop a pill” rather than making uncomfortable lifestyle changes.
Simply looking after ourselves better and reducing ongoing stress levels would go a long way to preventing many potential health problems, not just cholesterol levels and heart disease.
We know some may find our message a little repetitive (!) but the small things you can do every day to improve your health really do pay dividends long term.
As always, the choice is yours.
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