Is the cholesterol debate really as simple as we've been led to believe?
Posted on 3rd August 2016 at 07:45
Cholesterol – and statins – are subjects we discuss regularly with clients and have written about before in this blog. “Cholesterol – are statins a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” posted in September 2014 can be found in the blog archives to the right of this post.
Despite the huge amount of coverage this topic has had in the mainstream press, fundamental misunderstandings remain about both cholesterol and the effectiveness of statins. So, once again, let’s have another look at this subject and shatter some of the most common myths.
Cholesterol is bad for you and doesn’t serve any useful purpose in the body
False. Cholesterol is a waxy like substance found in the membrane surrounding almost every cell in your body. It acts rather like a gatekeeper, helping to control the movement of substances in and out of the cell. The brain and nerves contain greater amounts of cholesterol and it’s crucial for them to function efficiently.
It’s needed to manufacture Vitamin D, corticosteroids – which help us deal with stress – and the sex hormones.
Cholesterol is also essential for a healthy immune system.
Cholesterol only comes from our diet
False. About 25% of cholesterol comes directly from the diet. From foods such an meat, vegetable oils, dairy products and eggs. The rest, approximately 75%, is manufactured by the liver to meet the body’s requirements.
And now some bad news for those of you who avoid fatty meats to lower their cholesterol rates. This is that the amount of cholesterol found in fatty meats is about the same as that found in lean meats; 25mg per ounce. And the simple reason for this is that cholesterol is found in the membrane surrounding every cell, rather than the meat itself.
Added to this, research has found that the amount of cholesterol absorbed by each person from the food they eat can vary hugely. From as little as 20% to as much as 60%.
(And, if you stop to think about it for a minute, these two factors explain why people taking statins and on a low fat diet can still have “high” levels of cholesterol.)
All cholesterol is the same
False. Again this isn’t the case, with cholesterol being split into two broad groups, each with its own particular characteristics:
High density lipoproteins (HDLs), so called “good cholesterol” which helps clear cholesterol out of the arteries where it can cause problems.
Low density lipoproteins (LDLs), the “bad cholesterol” on which most media coverage focusses. LDL molecules are much smaller than HDL’s, passing more easily through the artery linings, causing inflammation and plaque formation. This makes the arteries narrower and less flexible leading to blood clots, heart attacks or strokes.
While higher levels of LDL’s have been repeatedly linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, research dating back to 1996 found that saturated fats actually reduced the risk of CVD. This was simply due to them increasing the size of LDL molecules so that they couldn’t pass through the artery linings.
With blood tests tending to focus on LDL levels, it’s not surprising that there’s so much confusion about cholesterol levels and whether they are “good” or “bad.” A more accurate picture can be given by simply looking at the ratio of HDL to total cholesterol, since HDL plays an important part in preventing CVD.
Cholesterol is the number one cause of heart disease
False. This myth can be traced back to the 1950’s and research funded by the vegetable oil / margarine industry; which appeared to link heart disease to raised cholesterol levels in the blood. It led to a major change in people’s diets, as saturated animal fats were replaced by polyunsaturated fats found in margarines and vegetable oils.
Unfortunately, this has had exactly the opposite effect, as cholesterol levels – and heart disease – have increased steadily since then. In addition, it’s now become clear that the method used to process vegetable oils – known as “hydrogenation” – produces transfats, which cannot be used by the body to make cholesterol. It also produces free radicals which can damage cells. Transfats have been linked to a large number of other health problems and this is the reason why supermarkets have recently stopped using hydrogenated fats in their convenience foods.
Statins safely lower cholesterol levels and so reduce heart disease
False. As indicated above, it’s been repeatedly found that cholesterol isn’t linked to heart disease. A largescale study of over 70,000 people found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, those with higher cholesterol levels actually lived longer than those with “normal” or “low” levels.
Not only is the central tenet on which the “cholesterol industry” is based false, but statins themselves have been found to cause many other problems. These include skin rashes, dizziness, muscle weakness, headaches, reduced heart / liver / kidney function and memory loss.
Ironically, many statin medications can actually cause heart problems, as they contain fluoride which strips the body of the magnesium essential for cardiovascular health.
And, if this wasn’t enough, statins have also been linked to type II diabetes, with rates increasing dramatically in recent years.
If cholesterol isn’t the cause of increasing rates of cardiovascular disease, what is?
While smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet / excess weight are well accepted risk factors; there’s another that may surprise you. And this is a diet high in carbohydrates which, if you think about it, is what has replaced saturated fats as a major component of western diets in the last 50 years.
This is exacerbated by a reduction in the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables being eaten. Not only do carbohydrates raise triglyceride levels in the blood, but a lower fruit and vegetable intake reduces antioxidant levels, both of which are known to increase the risk of heart disease.
So is there anything you can do at home to really make a difference?
Of course there is – and you’re probably going to get a feeling a déjà vu over what we say, but we’ll say it anyway (!).
If you’re a smoker, reduce or give up smoking. We know it can be a challenging habit to break but it is a MAJOR risk factor for heart disease. And many other diseases, particularly cancers, as well. Acupuncture can help with both cravings and willpower, so if you want to find out more please do call us.
Take steps to lose any excess weight, particularly that on the abdomen which increases the risk of both heart disease and diabetes.
Make sure you take regular exercise that increases your heart rate, to improve your heart health and overall fitness. Get up and move during the day, walk rather than drive and avoid long periods sitting in the car or at your desk.
Reduce the amount of carbs you eat each day to 20 to 30% of your total calorie intake especially processed wheat based products.
Increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as healthy saturated fats such as nuts and seeds, avocado, coconut oil and grass fed meat.
Keep an eye on your blood pressure, as it can be a silent killer with no symptoms until it’s too late.
Supplements such as Vitamin C, Magnesium, COQ10 and garlic can all help too.
As we’ve often said before, simple lifestyle changes can make a huge difference and help your overall health as well.
As always, the choice is yours.
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