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Slammin’ oversimplification, part one: Cholesterol

March 1, 2012

Most of the time, simplicity rocks my mismatched socks.

Beverage of legends? Water, on the rocks.

Diet philosophy? Eat real food.

Fashion persuasion? Burlap sack. (Rouge up your cheeks with smears of beetroot and you’ve got yourself a fresh summer look).

What kinda sorta worries me however, is the oversimplification of simple. A blinkered approach where critical thought gives way to convenient (often marketable) molecules of misinformation. Especially to do with health.

Black and white bombshells such as ‘LDL = bad, evil, home-wrecking cholesterol; HDL = happy clappy cardiovascular hero’.

And The more omega-3 (supplementation) the merrier!’

In the primal community; ‘Eat more fat; vilify carbs’

Let’s not forget every generic women’s magazines secret beauty bombshell; ‘Drink water to look like x photoshopped supermodel’ (No. Freakin’. Way!)

The list goes on. And on. (Then eventually stops).

My point being, sometimes we must don our detective caps and forage around in the undergrowth for a more nuanced, compelling, complex answer. Taking comfort in the one-dimensional advice from the nutters in charge is no recipe for sustained healthfulness. In fact, we need to ask more questions; complicate the scene, even temporarily. You’ll find us flinging undies and bra-straps and moth-eaten mittens from our bulging sock-drawer until we arrive at a higher truth (why do I still have my lucky knickers from grade 2, unwashed? And why does rummaging through our underwear department lead to enlightenment?).

Let’s first address some of the atrociously oversimplified assertions above. They really get up my goat gouda.

Ding-ding! Dumbass alert.

Cholesterol is one of the biggest, phattest topics in the world of disease, diet and drugs. It’s a dirty word. It is the endemic evil circulating in our bloodstreams, scoping out cosy little crevices in vulnerable arteries to clog. What a spiteful, vicious little molecule. Exterminate!

Yo world, get a clue.

Let’s ask this: why would our bodies produce up to 2000 mg a day of such a nasty substance? Where is the physiological logic in that?

If there’s one thing we should appreciate by now, it’s that the processes our bodies enact daily, hourly, nano-secondly are the result of hundreds-of-thousands of years of refinement. Everything inside our funky outer shell works together like a beautiful eco-friendly engine, purring and humming and operating in synergy (until we chuck in diesel petrol and sawdust).

Cholesterol is not the bad guy. It is a (very, very important) part of our internal landscape, and is actually trying to ASSIST in our health and repair, if we didn’t smother it with statins.

Confused about what cholesterol actually is?

(source)

It is an organic chemical substance classified as a waxy steroid of fat (thanks Wikipedia!). It has innumerable functions in the body, but most of us make the ‘cholesterol/heart disease’ connection. Doesn’t that shit clog your arteries?

Blasphemy!

The truth is, cholesterol is actually acting like a ‘bandaid’ for damaged arterial walls and tissue, patching up the carnage caused by high blood-sugar levels, toxins, denatured proteins and oxidised fats. The ‘LDL’ and ‘HDL’ we always hear about are actually proteins that act as transport vehicles for cholesterol itself (riding inside it’s little chariot).

LDL gets a bad rap because it’s the caboose that takes cholesterol from the liver to the extremities, veins & arteries – oversimplification starts here: LDL therefore, must be the culprit in atherosclerotic plaque formation cos it’s putting it there, right?

Did we ever wonder if our helpful little fatty waxy steroid was instead eagerly trying to plug up the leaks?

Mind-blowing ass-kicking fact: 80% of what actually clogs arteries is not even composed of cholesterol or saturated fat, but is comprised of oxidized or rancid unsaturated fats (Enig 2001). We’ll get to the oxidation issue later ‘ron.

HDL on the other hand; the medical ‘hero’, returns the same cholesterol back to the liver for reuse (FYI: our bodies love cholesterol so much they engage in active recycling!).

Other amazing, invaluable functions of cholesterol include:

  • Precursor to stress and steroid hormones (we need it to make oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, adrenaline, cortisol, DHEA and vitamin D).
  • Integral component of cell membranes; helps to ‘insulate’ the cell and allow separate chemistry to occur inside vs. outside the cell.
  • Makes up the nerve sheaths in the brain and is therefore paramount in noggin’ development and growth (ESPECIALLY for kiddies).
  • Affects the function of neurotransmitters (positively) and is therefore vital for mood regulation.
  • Can be beneficial to the gastrointestinal lining; helps to reduce membrane permeability (i.e leaky gut).
  • LDL serves as a transport mechanism for super-vital fat-soluble nutrients, antioxidants and fats.
  • Acts itself, as an antioxidant.

Helllllo glaringly obvious answer: WE NEED CHOLESTEROL! We thrive on it.

Both HDL & LDL cholesterol are essential, in a balance. In fact, new studies are emerging that paint a pretty bleak picture of low cholesterol and it’s association with certain cancers, psychological disorders, hormonal imbalances, stroke and Parkinson’s disease. From the functions outlined above, these conditions make sense.

Another strike against oversimplification; more is not better, less is not better. Can we get some measured appreciation up in here?

Let’s also discuss the ingestion of cholesterol-containing foods and the near-sightedness of placing people on fat-reduced, cholesterol-fearing, high-carb intervention diets.

As I mentioned earlier, our bodies endogenously (within) produce up to 2000 mg of cholesterol per day, all by their-clever-selves. It’s a tough ask though, and food-dervied cholesterol is actually preferred as it gives the liver some respite from having to manufacture it. Cholesterol has always been a part of our diets; hunter-gatherer folk ate it in abundance from animal sources, and it is only in recent times that it has become the scape-goat of the medical industry looking for some agent to blame for skyrocketing rates of cardiovascular disease (let’s all give high-fructose corn-syrup, trans fats, vegetable oils and refined carbohydrates the collective stink-eye). When we eliminate cholesterol, something funny happens.

Well, not funny ha, ha. Funny, bad.

The liver starts to produce an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase which actually signals the body to manufacture extra cholesterol from dietary carbohydrates to compensate. In overdrive. We can’t escape, because we were never meant to! As an additional insult, if we are manufacturing cholesterol from our high intake of refined sugars, our blood sugar levels will also be elevated, insulin will spike, thus creating perfect conditions for arterial damage (sugar in the blood stream is a big neddy no-no) and subsequent patch-up band-aid jobs.

Statins, the drugs commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol are another brain-fuck of the pharmaceutical industry. They inhibit HMG-CoA reductase, ergo cholesterol production. Logical no? Well, no. It ain’t that simple, sugar.

They may lower cholesterol levels on paper, but they also deplete the bodies natural stores of CoQ10 – it prevents the oxidation of fats/cholesterol, and is the premier nutrient for proper heart function. On top of this, the actions of statins to ‘lower’ CRP scores (a marker of inflammation in the body) may actually be due to their damaging effects on the liver – the reason people’s inflammatory markers go down is because they can’t even produce them any more! Does this solve any problems? Seems to me like it just cheats on the test.

So surely there must be SOME link between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease? Well, yes. Health matters aren’t that simple now are they? Good god I’m catching on!

The real problem appears to be OXIDISED LDL cholesterol. These molecules are smaller, denser, and are effectively rancid. They are yet another delicious ingredient in conventional dairy products (god bless pasteurisation – cooking our foodstuffs into oxidative oblivion) and practically any nasty processed frankenfood you can think of, especially those exposed to high heat and insane processing methods.

We can also oxidize our own cholesterol, thank you very much! When things get inflamed and angry on the inside, our fats tend to self-destruct. This is what results in arterial plaque formation.

And just an FYI, statin drugs do nothing to address oxidised LDL.

I hope this brief foray into the geeky world of lipoproteins and health myths has given you a bit more of a handle on the whole cholesterol debate, and perhaps sparked some interest in pursuing alternative view-points, other than those espoused by the monkey’s in charge. This is the most compelling info I can find about the topic, but feel free to add your own 2 pennies and ask probing questions I most likely won’t be able to answer!

To recap:

  • Our bodies lust after cholesterol and produce it in abundance every. single. day.
  • Every cell in the body contains cholesterol, and it is used for a host of incredibly important bodily processes, not least of which is the walls of our cells!
  • Cholesterol from whole food sources keeps our endogenous levels in balance; eliminating it in our diet signals FAMINE! to our body, sending it’s own cholesterol-making factory into overdrive.
  • Cholesterol acts as a band-aid; let’s stop wounding ourselves!
  • Oxidised cholesterol is the most harmful substance, from processed foods and inflammation in the body. Avoid! Avoid!
  • Drugs commonly prescribed to ‘lower’ cholesterol levels appear to be largely ineffective and miss the crux of the issue, often exacerbating the problem.

Thanks for tuning in guys! Now go enjoy a massive egg yolk omelette cooked in bacon grease, garnished with seal-blubber jerky; revel in the healthfulness of cholesterol and feel empowered in the knowledge our bodies are smarter than we’ll ever be. Let’s not mess with their madness.

x

20 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2012 5:12 am

    Ahhh cholesterol is my pet topic, love this post girl! I sat for like 10 mins tearing out my hair writing my last post – over the one sentence about coconut increasing “good” HDL cholesterol. I kinda hate myself for writing that but didn’t want to have to explain myself like you so beautifully have for the cholesterol uninitiated. Haha well now I can just point them to your page! Gahh and how did lipoproteins become forms of cholesterol anyway?! Such a misunderstood yet utterly beautiful little nutrient! I’ve grown up with a cardiologist father who, luckily, doesn’t subscribe to the who ‘eating cholesterol means high cholesterol in the body’ theory. Anyway, sorry for the ramble, nice post! X

    • March 1, 2012 5:15 am

      Ps seal blubber jerky would be so delicious

    • Catie permalink*
      March 1, 2012 8:27 am

      Cheers Kate! You are indeed the queen of fat! Which reminds me, was going to link to your post on low-fat flunks cos it’s so gosh darn succinct.
      I know what you mean about hair pulling…I get bogged down in the enormousness of it all!
      And glad to hear your daddy-o is one of the few enlightened ones; how lucky! You were born to keep the hearts of the people healthy!

  2. Mike permalink
    March 1, 2012 5:12 am

    I love cholesterol.

    PS. Please do not forget that English is not everybody’s mother tongue. It’s time you make up a vocabulary of Catieisms for us :)

    • Catie permalink*
      March 1, 2012 8:29 am

      Gracias Mike! Unfortunately I’m unable to communicate like a regular human; hopefully the extra cholesterol will grow me some more neurons!

      • Mike permalink
        March 1, 2012 8:44 am

        No worries. Probably I need to buy a modern-slang dictionary.

      • Catie permalink*
        March 1, 2012 8:51 am

        Oh! I didn’t realize you meant yourself! Your English is spot-on :) I’ll try to be more intelligible in future!!

  3. Nicky permalink
    March 1, 2012 7:31 am

    Is it bad for you to drink too much water?

    • Catie permalink*
      March 1, 2012 8:33 am

      Hi Nicky! Well, yes. Anything is a poison in a high enough dose, even things as benign as water!
      Most people are probably dehydrated, true, but it’s also important not to drink an excessive amount as it can dilute our electrolytes, make it hard for us to digest our food (if we drink with meals it waters down hydrochloric acid & enzymes cant function optimally) and in large enough amounts, it can rupture our cells.
      I’m talking, liters and liters (in a short space of time) but there is definitely a context and we can go overboard!
      Quality is also important. Many factors at play!

  4. hilaryisaac permalink
    March 1, 2012 1:23 pm

    What a mind-blowing post! Love this! Thanks for pulling the sheets off from our eyes. It’s all propaganda innit? People need to be more educated so they don’t fall for the faff and waffle being sold by some ‘health’ stores, magazines, pharmaceutical companies, etc. Kudos!

    H xx

    • Catie permalink*
      March 5, 2012 4:18 am

      Innit indeed!
      Thanks so much Hilary x

  5. March 3, 2012 1:44 pm

    I absolutely love this post!! And all of your posts for that matter! You are brilliant and have the facts to back up this alternative (yet correct) way of looking at bodies and nutrition. I am currently in my dietetic internship, and everyday I see low fat, low cholesterol diets and statin drugs being the “remedy” for patients. Everyday I learn the traditional nutrition, and it kills me because I know its not always correct. Your posts keep me thinking and learning, and I can’t wait to put your advice into practice.

    • Catie permalink*
      March 5, 2012 4:28 am

      Wow, thanks Amanda!
      I think going back to traditional dietary wisdom is the best approach any of us can take. Keep it simple eh? x

  6. Joanna permalink
    March 5, 2012 2:01 am

    Hey Catie,
    Absolutely love your blog!
    I would be very interested to hear your take on plant sterols being used to reduce LDL cholesterol levels.

    X

    • Catie permalink*
      March 12, 2012 11:19 am

      Hi Joanna, thanks for your question! I have the master of herbal medicine as my lecturer tomorrow so i’m going to ask his opinion – mine is not really well formed enough to comment just yet!

  7. magnolia permalink
    March 7, 2012 9:06 pm

    Hi Catie,
    I am wondering if you have any extra tips for increasing cholest. levels as mine is incredibly low. I eat loads of eggs and meat & fat but don’t know what else I can do

  8. Joanna permalink
    March 20, 2012 3:47 am

    Hi Catie,
    I’d like to share two very interesting articles which address some similar points.

    The first was published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons discusses the difference between native LDL and oxidized LDL.

    http://www.jpands.org/vol10no3/colpo.pdf

    The second discusses some very interesting points- my favourite being the following:

    ‘LDL comes in four basic forms: a big, fluffy form known as large LDL, and three increasingly dense forms known as medium, small, and very small LDL. A diet high in saturated fat mainly boosts the numbers of large-LDL particles, while a low-fat diet high in carbohydrates propagates the smaller forms. The big, fluffy particles are largely benign, while the small, dense versions keep lipid-science researchers awake at night.’

    Mind-blower!

  9. July 21, 2012 12:38 am

    It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before finish I am reading this enormous post to improve my knowledge.

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