You knew there was a bit of an over-emphasis (borderlining obsession) about cholesterol, right?
Before we jump into some myths let's make sure we're on the same page when it comes to what exactly cholesterol is.
While cholesterol is an actual molecule what it is bound to while it's floating through your blood is what's more important than just how much of it there is overall. In fact depending on what it's combined with can have opposite effects on your arteries and heart. Yes, opposite!
So cholesterol is just one component of a compound that floats around your blood. These compounds contain cholesterol as well as fats and special proteins called “lipoproteins”.
They're grouped into two main categories:
HDL: High Density Lipoprotein (AKA “good” cholesterol) that “cleans up” some of those infamous “arterial plaques” and transports cholesterol back to the liver.
LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein (AKA “bad” cholesterol) that transports cholesterol from the liver (and is the kind found to accumulate in arteries and become easily oxidized hence their “badness”).
And yes, it's even more complicated than this. Each of these categories is further broken down into subcategories which can also be measured in a blood test.
So “cholesterol” isn't simply cholesterol because it has very different effects on your body depending on which other molecules it's bound to in your blood and what it is actually doing there.
Cholesterol is absolutely necessary for your body to produce critical things like vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, your sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone), as well as bile to help you absorb dietary fats. Not to mention that it's incorporated into the membranes of your cells.
Talk about an important molecule!
The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA “total cholesterol”) isn't nearly as important as how much of each kind you have in your blood.
While way too much LDL cholesterol as compared with HDL (the LDL:HDL ratio) may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease it is absolutely not the only thing to consider for heart health.
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. It's actually not from the cholesterol you eat. Why do you think cholesterol medications block an enzyme in your liver (HMG Co-A reductase, to be exact)? 'Cause that's where it's made!
What you eat still can affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. After a cholesterol-rich meal your liver doesn't need to make as much.
As with almost everything in health and wellness there's a balance that needs to be maintained. There are very few extremes that are going to serve you well.
People with too-low levels of cholesterol have increased risk of death from other non-heart-related issues like certain types of cancers, as well as suicide.
Cholesterol is where MANY hormones come from – it is converted by the body into the “mother hormone” Pregnenolone, which then converts into numerous hormones including DHEA, progesterone, testosterone, the estrogens, and cortisol. Cholesterol is also a precursor to vitamin D. If we don’t have enough cholesterol and pregnenolone, it is safe to say that the cascade of steroid hormone production in our bodies would be compromised. My low levels of cholesterol might explain my tendency towards lower levels of estrogen, progesterone and vitamin D in the past. Increasing my fat and cholesterol intake over the last years has significantly improved my hormone levels and my overall health. Has this been your experience too?
Don't start or stop any medications without talking with your doctor.
And while drugs can certainly lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol they don't seem to be able to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol all that well.
Guess what does?
Nutrition, exercise and getting your cortisol under control, baby!
Both adrenaline and cortisol trigger the production of cholesterol, which liver makes to provide the body with energy and repair damaged cells. The problem is that too much cholesterol can clog the arteries. One theory is that the stress hormones function this way to provide fuel for a potential fight or flight situation. But if this energy is not used—as with modern-day stressors that don't require an actual physical fight or escape—it is gradually accumulated as fat tissue, somewhere in the body. Cortisol has the additional effect of creating more sugar, the body's short-term energy source.In recurrent stressful situations, sugars are repeatedly unused and are eventually converted into triglycerides or other fatty acids. Research has also indicated that these fatty deposits are more likely to end up in the abdomen. And those with more abdominal fat are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. So getting your cortisol under control can really help lower your bad cholesterol levels.
Also one of the most impactful ways to lower your cholesterol with diet is to eat lots of fruits and veggies. I mean lots, say up to 10 servings a day. Every day.
Don't worry the recipe below should help you add at least another salad to your day.
You can (should?) also exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, and eat better quality fats. That means fatty fish, avocados and olive oil. Ditch those over-processed hydrogenated “trans” fats.
The science of cholesterol and heart health is complicated and we're learning more every day. You may not need to be as afraid of it as you are. And there is a lot you can do from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective to improve your cholesterol level.
Makes about ¾ cup
½ cup hemp seeds
½ cup orange juice
1 clove of garlic, peeled
dash salt and/or pepper
Tip: Store extra in airtight container in the fridge. Will keep for about a week.
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