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Beyond Cholesterol

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a natural substance that is found in all animal products, such as meat and eggs. It is also an essential substance made in the human body. We need it for our brain and our skin. Many of our hormones are made from cholesterol.

Then why do we want lower levels and even take drugs to achieve this?

Cholesterol is believed to be one of the many risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), which kills close to a million people each year. Statin drugs do lower cholesterol.

You said cholesterol is “believed to be” a risk. So, is it a factor in CVD or not? I am confused.

You and lots of other people. The answer to that question is yes and no. In fact, some very large studies concluded that one half of the people who have CVD do not have high cholesterol. It was also concluded that half of the people with high cholesterol did not have CVD.

So maybe cholesterol is not the enemy?

Actually, there are several kinds of cholesterol--some good and some bad. The bad is called LDL or low density lipids. LDL is an oxidized form of cholesterol and is dangerous because it sticks to the walls of the arteries causing plaque buildup. This is a problem because, as the blood vessels narrow, the blood flow is restricted to the heart. Blood Pressure rises and strokes can occur. The good cholesterol is called HDL, or high density lipids. HDL does not stick and helps escort the LDL out of the body. The amounts of HDL and LDL are broken out for you in a routine lipid blood profile. Your doctor should be doing such a panel on you once a year or so.

How do I read a blood panel?

Understanding the numbers on your blood lab is a valuable skill. Below are two lipid lab reports:

Patient #1

Cholesterol serum 180 (under 200 is the usual range)

HDL 60 (should be over 45)

LDL 100 (should be under 100)

Chol/HDL risk ratio 3 (should be under 5)

NOTE: If the ratio is not listed, divide the HDL into the total cholesterol. In this example, 180/60 = 3

Patient #2

Cholesterol serum 180

HDL 30

LDL 130

Chol/HDL risk ratio 6

These two examples have the same total cholesterol levels but two very different risk situations. The high LDL and low HDL put patient #2 at a greater risk.

So how do we fix the problem?

Our cells (75 trillion of them) are exposed to free radicals, unstable molecules that cause oxidative damage. This exposure is hard to prevent, as just breathing causes free radicals. In addition, we live a toxic world. Our food, water, air, chemicals, and even stress contribute to free radical damage and eventually to disease, including CVD. We can reduce oxidation by limiting sugar, eating more fruits and vegetables--preferable organic ones—and by using a water filter and by reducing stress. All that will help. But frankly the problem of free radicals has become epidemic. I believe we need to supplement our diet with anti-oxidants which neutralize the free radical impact.

Can you give us a list?

A complete list would be long, but here are some of my favorites that I use with my clients. General protection for all cells is provided by vitamins A, C, and E; Green tea; glutathione precursors; turmeric; and resveratrol. To lower cholesterol, try Niacin (it lowers the bad and raises the good). Also fish oils and fiber are important. Exercise raises HDL, too.

Would it help if I cut out eggs?

Eat eggs. They are a great protein source. Just don’t fry them; eating soft boiled or poached eggs is better. Remember: only 20% of your cholesterol comes from diet. And 80% of the total cholesterol is made by our liver. That is why diet alone is often not successful in lowering lipids.

We all live such busy lives. Why not just take the statin drug and be done with it? Besides, my insurance pays for it.

That is, of course, your choice; but it is important to make informed choices about our health. A statin drug will stop production of some of the cholesterol in the liver. It also stops the production of an important heart anti-oxidant called CoQ10. Loss of CoQ10 causes myalgia (muscle pain) and muscle wasting. Over 60 side effects are listed for statin prescriptions, including depression and memory loss. One recent study linked statins to Alzheimer’s disease. This makes sense as the brain needs fat. Despite what the TV ads suggest, cholesterol can be too low. I become concerned when it is under 150.

Parting thoughts

If you really want to lower your cholesterol in a hurry, you can try Red Yeast Rice with CoQ10. This supplement is a natural statin, and not a long term solution but safer than the drug. I would also find a practitioner who would look at the root causes of your high lipids. We can’t just blame the genes of our parents for everything. For example, low thyroid function can raise cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is the raw material for cortisol, so adrenal function should be assessed. Cleaning up the liver with a liver detox may also be helpful. Besides keeping track of your lipid numbers, I would also ask for 3 other blood tests: C- reactive protein, a homocysteine, and a fibrinogen test. These tests are excellent predictors of cardio risk. Be informed. The quality of your life depends on it.