Starting in the mid-20th century until just recently, everyone from the media to the medical community shunned the consumption of cholesterol. Butter, eggs, meat – stay away if you want to live a long life! But, as you can guess, there's a different story!
What exactly IS cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver. It helps build cell membranes, protects nerve sheaths, produces steroid hormones and assists in immune health!
- Our cell membrane is made up of a lipid bilayer. Saturated fats and cholesterol provide structure and rigidity to cell membranes. Unsaturated fats provide the cell membrane with more fluid. A healthy membrane is needed to bring nutrients into the cell, and push waste out of the cell.
- Nerves are protected and wrapped in a fatty substance called myelin. Cholesterol makes up 20% of the myelin sheath!
- Sex and adrenal hormones, along with vitamin D rely on cholesterol to be produced!
Yes, our body produces cholesterol!
Healthy adults have between 1,100 – 1,700 milligrams of cholesterol in their body on any given day.
The body tightly regulates the amount of cholesterol in the blood.
Our body is intelligent. Really. It knows when to put the brakes on production and when to ramp up production in the liver.
When cholesterol intake in our diet is increased, liver production is decreased.
When cholesterol intake in the diet is decreased, liver production is increased.
Dietary cholesterol really has little impact on serum levels. Chris Masterjohn, PhD in Nutrition Sciences explains:
"Since we cannot possibly eat enough cholesterol to use for our bodies' daily functions, our bodies make their own. When we eat more foods rich in this compound, our bodies make less. If we deprive ourselves of foods high in cholesterol -- such as eggs, butter, and liver — our body revs up its cholesterol synthesis.
The end result is that, for most of us, eating foods high in cholesterol has very little impact on our blood cholesterol levels. In seventy percent of the population, foods rich in cholesterol such as eggs cause only a subtle increase in cholesterol levels or none at all. In the other thirty percent, these foods do cause a rise in blood cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol levels in our body are tightly regulated. Our body produces more when we are not receiving enough through food, and slows down production, otherwise.
We can't talk cholesterol without talking about LDL and HDL!
The Doctor's Office
LDL is commonly referred to as the bad cholesterol, and HDL as the good cholesterol.
Tests or a lipid panel measures the levels of lipoproteins circulating in the blood.
Most doctors will recommend a cholesterol-lowering drug (hello, statin!) if your cholesterol is over 200. The higher the levels the higher your risk for heart disease.
Lipoproteins are the vehicle to carry cholesterol, triglycerides, fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants around the body, however the size and type of the vehicle (the lipoprotein) is important.
A Second Look
Should you be worried about having a cholesterol reading over 200? Maybe. But, maybe not.
I'm not a doctor, and I don't pretend to play one on the internet, either! But, in working with your doctor, here are some general numbers to aim for:
- HDL above 70 - HDL does not easily penetrate the arterial wall and are often correlated with a reduced risk of cardiac disease. (Bauman, 2014)
- LDL below 130 - LDL is our repair guy. LDL is not inherently bad. It's repairing damaged caused by inflammation and patching up lesions on arterial walls. LDL is a signal to the body that there's inflammation. Here's how it was taught to me : high fasting blood glucose numbers and inflammation are like shards of glass. LDL is running around, patching up the nicks caused by inflammation.
- Triglycerides under 100 - Excess carbohydrates are converted to triglycerides in the liver and increase triglycerides.
- Triglyceride/HDL ratio less than 2 - Divide your triglyceride number by your HDL
- Fasting blood glucose less than 86
- Hemoglobin A1c less than 5.3%
Total cholesterol is not included in the above numbers to aim for; here's an example showing why:
HDL : 80
LDL : 130
Triglycerides : 70
Total cholesterol : 80+130+(70/5) = 224.
Even with an HDL of 80 (considered heart-protective), total cholesterol is over 200. Your doctor might ask you to go on a statin.
I have high CHOLESTEROL. Help!
- Ditch the sweet stuff -- sugar, processed carbohydrates, oxidized vegetable oils, trans fats
- Fuel up on healthy fats at each meals -- olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, lard, tallow, coconut oil and coconut milk
- Eat sustainably-raised protein — grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish
- Sleep. Move. Be happy!
Cholesterol is needed in every cell of our body. Let's embrace it, not fear it and treat our bodies to quality, healthful foods!