Cholesterol is often misunderstood. That’s why we’ve come up with the ultimate cholesterol guide to help explain what it is and what to do about it.
Sometimes the slightest mention of “cholesterol” tends to strike fear and disgust for many who hear it. But do you even know what it is or what it can do for your body?
If your answered “not so much,” then this ultimate cholesterol guide will attempt to clear things up for you. It’ll also give you a thorough understanding of healthier dietary and lifestyle decisions based on fact and free of conjecture.
THE ULTIMATE CHOLESTEROL GUIDE: DEFINITIONS & TRUTHS
So what is cholesterol, really?
Cholesterol is a sterol (or modified steroid), that is an essential structural component of animal cell membranes. It’s required to establish proper membrane permeability and fluidity to transport fatty compounds into our blood plasma. The main function is to build and maintain cell membranes (the outer layer), but it also:
- Decides which molecules can enter the cell and which can’t
- Helps in the production of sex hormones
- Essential for producing hormones released by the adrenal glands
- Aids in the production of bile
- Converts sunlight into Vitamin D.
- Metabolizes fat-soluble vitamins including: vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Insulates nerve fibers
Pretty impressive steroid, isn’t it?
That’s why our bodies make about 85% of the cholesterol currently coursing through your blood stream. Your liver kicks out about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day! The rest of it (the other 15%) comes from dietary sources, mainly foods high in animal fat like cheese, egg yolk, beef, pork, chicken, fish and shrimp.
Most ingested cholesterol is poorly absorbed, and the body also compensates for any unneeded cholesterol by lowering cholesterol synthesis. This means that dietary cholesterol intake has almost no effect on total cholesterol levels!
This is a point of confusion for many people reading this ultimate cholesterol guide. We’re often told to heavily consider moderating our consumption of foods high in cholesterol, when the truth is, most cholesterol is endogenous (originate from within us) and highly regulated by the body.
Let’s discuss this further.
THE BLOOD CHOLESTEROL VS. DIETARY CHOLESTEROL DEBATE
When you go to your doctor to measure your cholesterol levels, he’s actually measuring the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood (your blood cholesterol level).
So if our bodies create and regulate cholesterol levels, what’s the big fuss about dietary cholesterol consumption?
It’s that extra 15%. If you naturally have high cholesterol, then that little extra can push you over the edge. This is why the American Heart Association recommends that we limit our average daily cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood by molecules called lipoproteins. These carrier molecules are important because cholesterol cannot dissolve in water (nor blood), so they need these little “taxi” proteins to move them from the liver to the cells and back again.
It is the oversimplification of the movement of these “taxi” proteins that have spawned names like “good” an “bad” cholesterol.
CHOLESTEROL: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE NEUTRAL
Let’s take a closer look at these lipoproteins and their function in our blood stream:
LDL (low density lipoprotein): “Bad” cholesterol. LDLs are the major cholesterol carriers in the blood. If too much cholesterol is present in a cell, then the liver reduces the number of LDL receptors. This means that more LDLs become present in the blood, and they can do whacky things like depositing cholesterol on artery walls, forming plaque.
Too much cholesterol (more than the body needs), means more LDL (“bad” cholesterol) running amok in your blood strew, which means more plaque in your arteries, which could increase your risk of arterial diseases.
HDL (high density lipoprotein): “Good” cholesterol. HDL does the opposite of LDL—it moves the cholesterol from the cells and back to the liver. Experts say that the more HDL you have in your blood stream, the less likely your risk of arterial diseases.
Think of HDLs like drain cleaner that you pour in your sink, but instead of removing all that dried toothpaste and cat hair, it’s removing the nasty stuff collected on your artery walls.
Triglycerides: this is the official name for the chemical form that fat exists in your body—present in blood plasma. Triglycerides, in association with cholesterol, form the plasma lipids (blood fat). The triglycerides in our blood come from the fat present in our food, or are made in the body from other energy sources, like carbs. (Cue the scary music.)
Calories we eat but don’t use for energy, are converted into triglycerides and stores in fat cells. When our body needs energy but you haven’t eaten since last night’s steak dinner, then these triglycerides are released from your fat cells and used as energy.
THE ULTIMATE CHOLESTEROL GUIDE EXPLAINS HIGH CHOLESTEROL
Before we get into “high” cholesterol, let us see what the NHS (National Health Service) has to say about “normal” cholesterol levels.
The following is a list of cholesterol levels and how most doctors would categorize them (in mg/dl (milligrams/deciliter):
High cholesterol = higher than 240 mg/dL
Borderline-high = 200 to 239 mg/dL
Best = 200 mg/dL and below
So if your doctor came back and said that your cholesterol is at 247mg/dL, then you have “high” cholesterol. But while he may be quick to tell you to cut out eggs and take a few capsules a day of Lipitor, consider this:
There are no conclusive studies that can effectively link “high” cholesterol with heart disease.
It’s very likely you can take the drugs and lower your cholesterol, but still be in danger of getting heart disease. The inverse is also true. You could also have high cholesterol and never experience a heart attack.
Cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, M.D., says that the primary cause of heart disease isn’t cholesterol, but inflammation:
“Small injuries to the vascular wall—which can be caused by anything from high blood pressure to toxins—cause oxidized (damaged) LDL particles take up residence in the area. The immune system responds by sending inflammatory cytokines to the “rescue,” eventually resulting in plaque and an increased risk for heart disease.”
Here are some other, more natural, less pharmaceutical ways to fight off heart disease. (If you incorporate these action items into your daily life, you may realize that you don’t ever have to worry about cholesterol ever…EVER.)
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. (Ahem, Paleo, ahem.)
- Reduce intake of grains, starches, processed sugars and omega-6 fatty acids
- Quit smoking.
- Supplement with antioxidants, vitamin C, Coenzyme Q10, omega-3 fatty acids.
THE ULTIMATE CHOLESTEROL GUIDE AND THE PALEO DIET
Most people following the Paleo diet expect to see their blood lipids improve. However, other tests show minimal results indicating LDL levels rising. This has led to some speculation that eating a diet high in animal fats will negatively affect cholesterol levels.
Before allowing these tests to color what we have already learned about cholesterol, let’s go over what happens when you eat a Paleo diet and how this may affect your blood cholesterol:
Micronutrient deficiency: If you’re new to Paleo and have not been eating a wide variety of foods, it’s quite possible that you’re deficient in a few key micronutrients. Consult with a Paleo nutritionist or search the Internet for Paleo diets proven to be rich in the essential micronutrients that will help proper cholesterol production and movement.
Weight loss: When you go Paleo, you often lose weight by burning body fat rather than lean muscle mass. That means that during this weight loss phase, your body is releasing thousands of calories worth of fat into your blood stream as triglycerides and free fatty acids. This will increase the temporary number of LDLs in your blood stream, but check again when your weight stabilizes. You’ll find that everything is back to normal.
More activity than carbs: If you’re running a full triathlon every morning without giving your body the proper carbs (glucose) to sustain that level of activity, your body conserves what glucose is available. To preserve the little glucose available, the T3 thyroid hormone is reduced. And lowered T3 can lead to lowered LDL receptors, which means more of those “bad” cholesterol taxis are cruising through your blood stream, and showing up on your doctor’s blood cholesterol chart.
THE ULTIMATE CHOLESTEROL GUIDE WRAP-UP
Okay, let’s take a break. Breath in and out. Stretch. We’re now at the end of our ultimate cholesterol guide.
Hopefully, here’s what you’ve learned from our ultimate cholesterol guide:
- Cholesterol is not some deadly poison, but a natural substance vital to the cells and lives of all mammals.
- “Bad” cholesterol and “Good” cholesterol are just names given to lipoproteins that move cholesterol away from and towards your liver, respectively.
- High cholesterol and heart disease have not been proven to be directly correlated.
- Your body produces more than four times more cholesterol than you eat.
- LDLs may increase during the beginning phase of a pale diet but will often stabilize as your body adapts.
- The risk of heart disease can be lowered by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising, reducing levels of stress, not smoking, and taking supplements.
We hope that reading this ultimate cholesterol guide will help you make more informed decisions about what you put into your body and what you do with it.
Go get ’em!
(You’ll Also Love: 5 Common Myths About Cholesterol)