What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver and is transported through the body by the blood. It’s made up of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and can be affected by triglycerides.
LDL, HDL & Triglycerides
Low-density lipoprotein (shortened to LDL) is what most people refer to as the “bad” type of cholesterol. This type of cholesterol is in charge of reparations to cells and arteries, which is why it has the tendency to build up in the blood and cause plaque.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL for short) has been dubbed the “good” cholesterol. It helps control the buildup of LDL in the blood by carrying it back to the liver to be broken down. This is why it’s important for those who are at risk for cardiovascular disease to increase their percentage of HDL.
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body. They’re not a type of cholesterol, but they do contribute to your overall risk of heart disease and stroke. Triglycerides store extra calories and are released when the body needs more energy. Triglycerides are acquired from fat in the diet.
What Does Cholesterol Do?
Cholesterol is responsible for so many vital functions. It’s so important, in fact, that having low levels of cholesterol can be just as dangerous as having high levels of cholesterol. Simply put, we cannot live without it.
One of cholesterol’s most important functions is the repair of damaged cells and tissues. In cells, it’s an important component of membranes, and helps maintain the integrity of these barriers. In tissues, cholesterol acts as a band-aid by applying itself to wounds to create plaque. This acts similar to a scab, so repairs can be made to the tissue.
Another one of cholesterol’s vital roles is the part it plays in building hormones – specifically sex hormones. These hormones are derivatives of cholesterol. This means that cholesterol is turned into testosterone, estrogen, and progestins through different processes within the body.
One other critical function of cholesterol is that it’s needed to make vitamin D. This may not seem entirely important on its own, but when you consider that vitamin D is required for brain and nerve function, it carries a lot more weight. This is a crucial nutrient for memory formation, so it’s plain to see just how important cholesterol is in this regard.
Healthy Cholesterol Levels
So how do we know if our cholesterol levels are healthy? To determine this, a healthcare professional will order a specific type of blood test called a lipid panel. This will show the total cholesterol, and the breakdown of HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels in your blood.
These are the ideal ranges for each category:
- Total cholesterol: 200 mg/dL and lower
- LDL: 70 – 100 mg/dL
- HDL: 60 – 95 mg/dL
- Triglycerides: 100 – 150 mg/dL
These are the recommended levels for optimum health. Being slightly higher or lower is not a cause for extreme concern, but it does become important to take helpful and preventative measures. The risk for cardiovascular disease rises the more your levels deviate from the recommended ranges.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
In order to keep our cholesterol at healthy levels, it’s important to be familiar with the causes of high cholesterol. So what should we be aware of in order to maintain balance?
Arterial Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress is an imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants. When this happens in the arteries, it can lead to cell and tissue damage – specifically for endothelial tissue (tissue that lines the inside of the arteries and heart).
When oxidative stress is present in the arteries for long periods of time, damage to the interior of the arteries and blood vessels becomes extensive. This is when LDL will begin to slip its way past the endothelial tissue and start to build up in the arterial walls. LDL is often misconstrued as the perpetrator behind atherosclerosis when it’s simply trying to repair damaged tissue and cells.
Some things that may cause oxidative stress include:
- ultraviolet light
- heavy metals
- toxins, such as pesticides
- food additives
Cholesterol is an essential building block for hormones. When someone experiences changes or an imbalance in their hormones, the liver will increase cholesterol production in an attempt to correct the imbalance.
A clinical case report from Acta Scientific states that hormone imbalances have many different causes, including:
- Hypothyroidism / Hyperthyroidism
- Hereditary & Genetic Diseases
- Menopause & Andropause
- Poor Diet
Gallbladder & Bile Issues
Another key purpose of cholesterol is the production of bile. Bile is a fluid made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. It’s crucial for the breakdown and digestion of fats.
Cholesterol is constantly being used for bile production, which can help keep cholesterol levels in check. However, if you’ve had your gallbladder removed, or if you experience bile deficiency, this cholesterol may end up in your bloodstream.
Some things that may contribute to bile deficiency include:
- Cholecystectomy (surgical gallbladder removal)
- Low stomach acid
- Low intake of fat-metabolizing foods
Let’s address the elephant in the room: statins. Most doctors will typically prescribe statins when you’re at an “increased risk of heart disease,” but they’re not as helpful as they might seem.
An article by GreenMedInfo takes a deep dive into the detrimental effects of statins on the body. They cite over 225 studies that prove that statins can cause muscle damage, nerve damage, liver damage, endocrine disruption, cardiovascular damage, birth defects, increased risk of diabetes, and even increased risk of cancer.
The cholesterol lowering effects of statins can be dangerous, too. Having low cholesterol is linked to increased risk of suicide, depression, violent tendencies, decline in memory, cognitive dysfunction, and more. About 25% of the total cholesterol in the body can be found in the brain, with most of it being located in the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is the coating that insulates the nerves. Without the cholesterol necessary to keep this barrier strong, neurological problems can start to arise.
Statin drugs also deplete the body of CoQ10 (ubiquinol). CoQ10 is an antioxidant that is essential for cell energy, growth, and maintenance. When your body is depleted of this nutrient, it can lead to fatigue, muscle weakness, soreness, and heart failure. If you take statins, you may want to consider supplementing with CoQ10.
Even with all of that aside, statins don’t reduce the risk of death in 95% of the population. Statins are most effective at reducing death in young and middle-aged men with pre-existing heart disease, but with very small benefit and significant adverse effects.
How to Balance Your Cholesterol Levels
So what should you do if you have high cholesterol? There’s one key theme that you should keep in mind: high cholesterol is a symptom of a bigger problem. To fix the symptom, we need to treat the root.
Increase Your Intake of Certain Foods
There are many types of food that will help to lower LDL and increase HDL naturally. These include:
- extra-virgin olive oil
- beans & legumes
- green tea
- gluten-free whole grains
- aged garlic extract
- mercury-free salmon
Of this list, the aged garlic extract and cinnamon are the most effective. However, adding vegetables, nuts, and seeds into your regular diet can really help get your cholesterol in balance.
Balance Your Hormones
Like we discussed earlier, one of the reasons cholesterol levels tend to increase is because of a drop in hormone levels. Increasing and bringing your hormones back into balance is an effective way of lowering cholesterol levels.
Some ways to balance hormones naturally include:
- Reducing exposure to environmental toxins (like chemicals in plastics, cleaning products, pesticides and herbicides, etc.)
- Having a healthy diet
- Exercising regularly
- Getting adequate, restful sleep
- Practicing stress management
- Decreasing sugar intake
There are several supplements that can be very effective at balancing cholesterol. Some have even shown better results than doctor-prescribed statins.
Effective supplements for lowering cholesterol include:
- Plant Sterols: 16 studies showed that plant sterols lowered overall cholesterol by 10% and LDL by 13%.
- Policosanol: derived from sugar cane, beeswax, cereal grains, fruits, nuts, or seeds. Shown to normalize cholesterol as well or better than cholesterol lowering drugs.
- Niacin (vitamin B3): improves cholesterol profiles when given in doses well above the vitamin requirement. Nicotinic acid lowers LDL-cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while raising HDL-cholesterol levels. If you have a peptic ulcer, gout, or liver disease, use niacin with caution.
- Chromium: 1 – 2 mg per day may reduce total serum cholesterol levels by 15%
- Gugulipid: made from the sap of the guggul tree. A study of 125 patients receiving gugulipid showed an 11% decrease in total serum cholesterol, a drop of 16.8% in triglycerides, and a 60% increase in HDL cholesterol within 3 to 4 weeks.
- Red Yeast Rice: a natural source of statins. It differs from the pharmaceutical type because it provides a mix of the compounds and reacts with the body more cohesively. It’s effective at decreasing both triglycerides and LDL cholesterol and raising HDL. You must also take CoQ10 when taking this.
Please be sure to do your own research before taking any supplements. It’s always safe to talk to a trusted healthcare provider, especially if you are on any medications.
To Sum It All Up
Cholesterol isn’t the undermining villain it’s made out to be. It’s a necessary part of so many vital functions, and maintaining a healthy balance is crucial for total body wellness.
High cholesterol levels are almost always a sign that there is a larger underlying issue. The most common root problems include oxidative stress, thyroid dysregulation, and gallbladder and bile issues.
Balancing cholesterol levels naturally can be a much safer and more effective solution to improve your health. You can start by increasing your intake of cholesterol-balancing foods, working on balancing your hormones, or taking certain supplements.
If you believe you’re struggling with high cholesterol, talk to a trusted healthcare provider about the best options for you.