Cholesterol Is Not the Enemy

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I had a teacher once tell me to be leery of the things that “everyone knows.”

It’s pretty good advice. At some point in history, everyone “knew” the Earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the Earth. It is common knowledge among any military force that the opposition is worse, less human, more barbaric or just more generally awful and deserving of death. Everyone knows chocolate is bad for you.

Well currently you’d be hard pressed to find a person on the street who doesn’t “know” cholesterol is just about the most evil thing anyone could ever encounter. Eating cholesterol raises cholesterol levels which clogs arteries and causes heart disease. Everyone “knows” that.

Everyone also “knows” that the ideal is to have blood cholesterol levels as low as possible and that, if this can’t be done through diet or lifestyle changes, it needs to be done with medications. High cholesterol means high chance of heart attack. Right?

This is yet another case of what everyone “knows” being just plain wrong. The picture is actually much more complicated than what is widely propagated about cholesterol. Although cholesterol is the ultimate bad guy of the last couple of decades, demonizing all sorts of foods including eggs, meats and dairy products, it’s actually the victim of a widespread misinformation campaign.

Cholesterol is a vital component of our health. Without it, we would die.

Let’s start at the beginning here. Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in every cell of the body. In fact, it is a essential component of every cell in the animal kingdom. It is vitally necessary for many body processes including forming the structure of cell walls and making bile (the substance produced by your liver needed to digest fats). Cholesterol is needed to make the body’s hormones, including cortisone and the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Additionally, you would be completely unable to manufacture vitamin D from sunlight without cholesterol.

The body has systems in place to regulate how much cholesterol you have at any given time. The vast majority of cholesterol in your body — 75% by most estimates — is made by your own liver. Trying to lower cholesterol levels by avoiding it in your diet is, therefore, somewhat futile. If your body needs more cholesterol and you’re not eating it, your liver will simply make more.

But the important point here is that cholesterol is not responsible for heart disease. It’s not responsible for any disease. If it is oxidized, or rancid, it can be quite harmful, but so can essential fats like omega-3 and omega-6 and no one would dream of suggesting that we avoid these in our diets.

What is rarely understood is that cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease — it is a symptom. Cholesterol has a very real function in the body and clogging arteries isn’t one of them. If cholesterol levels are elevated, it is because the body, in its infinite wisdom (literally), has determined that there is a reason for it. It is there to do a job and deciding arbitrarily to lower cholesterol is overriding the body’s own wisdom. This is a questionable move. Dr. Ron Rosedale, expert in nutritional and metabolic medicine, puts it thusly:

“A mistake that is rarely made in the hard-core sciences such as physics seems to be frequently made in medicine. This is confusing correlation with cause. There may be a weak correlation of elevated cholesterol with heart attacks, however this does not mean it is the cholesterol that caused the heart attack. Certainly gray hair is correlated with getting older; however one could hardly say that the gray hair caused one to get old. Using hair dye to reduce the gray hair would not really make you any younger. Neither it appears would just lowering your cholesterol.”

Confusing the issue even more is the division of cholesterol into “good” and “bad” categories. It should be noted that there is only one type of cholesterol. HDL (High Density Lipoproteins) and LDL (Low Density Lipoproteins) are protein carriers that transport cholesterol through the blood. Neither of them, or indeed any of them since there are several types of HDL and LDL, are good or bad. But, because HDL cholesterol is used to carry cholesterol away from cells to the liver it was deemed “good” and, conversely, since LDL was found to be carrying cholesterol to the tissues, it was deemed “bad”.

This is, to state it bluntly, a ridiculous labeling. These carrier proteins are doing their job. They’re not good or bad. It’s like calling the bus that takes you to work bad and the bus that takes you home good. They’re just buses, just like HDL and LDL are just carrier proteins.

So the question becomes, why are cholesterol levels raised in some people? This is still not totally known, but it likely boils down to inflammation. This could be from ingesting oxidized fats from processed vegetable oils, eating lots of sugar and grains, trans fats, exposure to radiation, exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment and foods or even excessive amounts of stress.

The real way to curb cardiovascular disease is not to concentrate on numbers and counts, but to address the underlying cause of inflammation, whether that be cleaning up the diet, removing a harmful lifestyle factor, detoxifying the body or dealing with out-of-control stress. Lowering cholesterol is lowering a symptom and does little to nothing to extend life.

From Dr. Rosedale, “If excessive damage is occurring such that it is necessary to distribute extra cholesterol through the bloodstream, it would not seem very wise to merely lower the cholesterol and forget about why it is there in the first place. It would seem much smarter to reduce the extra need for the cholesterol — the excessive damage that is occurring, the reason for the chronic inflammation.”

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.

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