Most people these days either suffer from or know someone who suffers with high cholesterol. Here we attempt to decipher the facts about good and bad cholesterol and the overall effects on the body.
Cholesterol is a porridge-like substance which is a fat-soluble crystalline steroid alcohol found in animal fats and oils, creams, cheese, full fat milk, butter, meat especially pork bacon and egg yolks. Cholesterol is a vital component of cell membranes and is widely distributed in the body, especially in the bile, blood, brain tissue, liver, kidneys, adrenal glands and myelin sheaths of nerve fibres. It facilitates the absorption and transportation of fatty acids and acts as the precursor for the synthesis of vitamin D on the skins surface as well as for the synthesis of various steroid hormones. Put simply, cholesterol plays an important role in the body from insulating nerves, assisting in the production of sex hormones, to making bile salts which play a huge part in the digestion of fats.
If cholesterol levels are not monitored through diet, blood vessels become narrow due to a build-up of fats leading to artherosclerosis and a variety of serious heart conditions as well as the formation of gall stones.
Like all fats, cholesterol is not soluble in water and therefore has to be transported in the blood in the form of fat/protein complexes known as lipoproteins. This gives rise to several common forms of blood cholesterol:
VLDL (very low density lipoproteins). These transport triglycerides and cholesterol out of the liver and deposit them in peripheral tissues and arteries. VLDL’s eventually become LDL’s or bad cholesterol.
LDL (low density lipoproteins or ‘bad cholesterol’). These contain predominantly cholesterol, which they deposit in the peripheral tissues, arteries and in the liver.
HDL (high density lipoproteins or ‘good cholesterol’ .) These consist of mainly phospholipids and 35-40% cholesterol. The phospholipids pick up cholesterol from the peripheral tissues, arteries and deposit it in the liver.
As we can see there is good and bad cholesterol in the blood, one of which is beneficial and the other harmful if in excess. It is believed that LDL cholesterol may have to be oxidized before it can form harmful artherogenic deposits in the arteries, which is the reason why a high intake of antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins A, C E, selenium and beta-carotene is beneficial in preventing heart disease.
Cholesterol levels are usually seen to be at an acceptable level if they are:
Total Cholesterol: <5.6 mmol/L
HDL – ‘good cholesterol’: >1.00
LDL -‘bad cholesterol’: <3.51
These values may vary slightly per country, and even per laboratory.
Very little of our blood cholesterol is obtained from dietary sources, the majority is synthesized by the liver. Elevated blood cholesterol levels are not therefore linked with a high cholesterol consumption, but they do tend to be associated with a diet high in saturated fats.
The causes of high cholesterol levels include a diet high in saturated fats, high intake of full-fat dairy produce, fried foods, heavy alcohol and caffeine consumption and smoking which causes fat deposits in the arteries, which in turn narrow and block blood vessels. These may lead to hypertension, increased cholesterol and heart attacks.
Cholesterol once made cannot be broken down by the body except into bile salts. It can only be excreted via the stools, in the form of bile acids, which are released into the gut during the process of digestion, and by cholesterol molecules. When adequate fibre, especially pectins and other forms of soluble fibre, are consumed in the diet, it binds bile acids and carries them out of the body via the stools. The reduced transit time of the gut contents, which is promoted by a high fibre diet, also helps to enhance the excretion of bile acids. If bile acids are not removed from the gut, they are reabsorbed and eventually re-converted to cholesterol. Low fibre diets therefore encourage reabsorption.
Modern Medical Treatment predominantly utilizes drugs such as Statins. Statins are a class of cholesterol-lowering medications that were prescription-only, but now seem available over the counter in some countries. Simvastatin, Lovastatin, and others (all ending in “statin”) are HMG-CoA Reductase Inhibitors. The enzyme HMGCoA Reductase is involved in cholesterol manufacturing. By preventing its synthesis, less cholesterol is made by the liver. Statins encourage increased formation of LDL (Low Density Lipoproteins or ‘bad cholesterol’) receptors thus increasing this form of cholesterol to be better removed from the blood. Statins also moderately reduce triglycerides and raise HDL (High Density Lipoproteins or ‘good cholesterol’). In combination with the prescribing of Statins, patients are supposed to be informed about a change in their diet that should assist the cholesterol-lowering effect of Statins.
However Statins have a range of side effects from mild to serious. These include: Nausea, constipation, flatulence, abdominal pain, weight gain, headaches, Rhabdomyolysis, an acute, potentially fatal destruction of skeletal muscle as evidenced by myoglobinuria (excretion of Myoglobin into the urine as a result of skeletal muscle degeneration). Experienced as a muscle pain, those who experience this should contact a doctor immediately. Statin drugs also interact with many other medications: Antibiotics, HIV drugs, other cholesterol-lowering drugs, and anti-coagulants such as Warfarin. Statin levels are affected by grapefruit juice, and this juice should be avoided.
It is postulated, and trialed with good results, that CoQ10 assists in preventing this dangerous condition. In Australia, many doctors recommend their patients to take 90 mg CoQ10 daily as an adjunct therapy to Statin drugs.
Naturopathic Treatment involves dietary and lifestyle changes as well as supplementary advice to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. First and foremost is an increase in Soluble fibre: Found especially in apples, flax seeds, oat bran and brown rice (cooked so that all cooking liquid is absorbed) are all excellent sources of soluble fibre. This binds bile acids and carries them together with toxins, via the colon to be eliminated. As well as stimulating the liver to take up more cholesterol from the blood in order to make more bile. This reduces cholesterol levels. Large quantities of soluble fibre in the gut ensure the removal of a greater percentage of bile acids along with their toxins. To seriously lower cholesterol levels, a naturopath would recommend cutting out all animal fats and dairy products, shellfish including prawns/shrimps, eggs, milk chocolate, refined sugars, alcohol, egg mayonnaise, fried foods and rich sauces.
Supplementing with fish oils/EPA, Co-enzyme Q10, squalene – found in olive oil, wheat germ oil, rice bran oil and shark liver oil, taking Lactobacillus acidophilus which manufactures lactase to digest milk sugar and also lowers cholesterol levels, as well as additionally taking garlic, tofu, artichokes, linseed, apples, chlorella, barberry herb, hawthorn berries, purslane, milk thistle, fenugreek seeds and soya. The low incidence of menopausal symptoms in Japanese women has also been attributed to high consumption of soya. Soya diets have also been shown to reduce levels of serum cholesterol.
Next time you or a loved one is told their cholesterol is high, ask for a copy of the cholesterol breakdown so you can see the levels of LDL and HDL blood cholesterol. Not all cholesterol is bad, however by maintaining a healthy diet this can certainly change and reduce the bad cholesterol levels in your blood.
As is the case with all nutritional and dietary disorders, a fine balance through natural nutrition and a healthy lifestyle is the key to health. Prevention is always preferable to cure!! Professional supervision by a qualified doctor or naturopathic nutrition consultant is key to getting this fine blood balance right.
‘Your health is in your hands!’
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Article written by Caroline Evans