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Cholesterol - Good, Bad or Protective?

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For the past 9 months, I have been studying, reading, learning and absorbing so much nutrition information that my head has almost exploded a few times. I'm immersed in my 3rd nutrition school, getting certified in Nutritional Therapy. Just a few weeks are left! The deeper I dig, the more concerned, agitated and passionate I get. The study of nutrition has evolved so much in the last twenty years, but unfortunately, some of it we got very wrong. One of those areas revolves around cholesterol and fats - saturated in particular.


In the late 1950's, Dr. Ancel Keys proposed that dietary fats, including cholesterol, cause heart disease. He created charts showing this correlation in six countries (but the data was from 22 countries). He carefully selected out those six countries that proved his theory. But when all of the data from all of the countries was added back in, the correlation disappeared! This is called "selection bias." You can pretty much prove any theory you have when you manipulate data. 


Today we have hundreds of scientific studies that disprove Key's Diet-Heart Hypothesis. There are books (The Big Fat Surprise, Put Your Heart in Your Mouth), hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies and papers from all over the world disproving this outdated theory. Yet, still today, millions of Americans are being told not to eat saturated fats or animal fats and to keep their cholesterol at dangerously low levels or even put on cholesterol-lowering drugs. I was one of those people. I ate fat-free or low-fat foods for dozens of years and I had high cholesterol.


So, what is cholesterol? What does it do for our bodies? SO much! First, our brains are made of about 8-22% cholesterol - it requires cholesterol to function. Every single cell in our bodies needs fats or cholesterol to create the phospholipid bilayer. Remember science class - those cell membranes are fat. Cholesterol is also needed to make steroid or sex hormones, like adrenal hormones and reproductive hormones. It's also a precursor to Vitamin D and is converted in the liver to bile - which is necessary to digest fats.  When you have an infection or wound or incision from surgery, cholesterol is shuttled to the site via a lipoprotein to begin the healing process. It's also active at any signs of infection or inflammation. So if your cholesterol is "high" you have to ask why or where is the inflammation my body is trying to heal from. Not medically lower it! Cholesterol is protective! Cholesterol is made by the body and our diets only contribute about 15-20% of it. If we eat more, the body will make less and vice versa. But, if we chemically prohibit the body from being able to make more, our whole health will suffer.


What is high cholesterol? This argument is still being discussed, but most functional medicine doctors agree that it's about balance and quality of the various cholesterol markers in the body. Now, if you have super high triglycerides (triple digits) and your LDL vs. the HDL markers are way out of balance, then you need to address some lifestyle factors. Are you smoking, sedentary, eating hydrogenated fats and rancid vegetable oils? Then, yes, your cholesterol will be unhealthily high. You don't really get the full picture of your cholesterol numbers unless you get an expanded VAP cholesterol panel done with a doctor. For example, I had two conventional doctors want to put me on a statin (cholesterol-lowering medication) for years, but I declined. Then, when I saw a functional medicine doctor, she ran the full panel. Originally, I did have elevated triglycerides, but that was because I was on the pop-tart, ding-dong, skim milk, cereal, and bread diet. Once I got rid of ALL of the high-fructose corn syrup and refined foods from my diet, my triglycerides fell into a super healthy range of 44!
Now, the full VAP panel revealed that while my overall cholesterol numbers were "high" at 228, my particle size was low and my fats were fluffy and buoyant. This showed that I did NOT need a statin and putting me on one could have done more damage to my body in trying to heal from autoimmune disease. Knowledge is such power and having access to the right medical tests is priceless!
It also angers me now to hear that many doctors are putting the elderly on cholesterol-lowering meds as a prophylactic. This means as a preventative, but to what? Wanna know how memories are made? Scientists have found that synapse formation is entirely dependent upon cholesterol. Without the presence of this fat, we can't form synapses or remember anything. Do you have a loved one with memory loss and also on a statin? I do and it's infuriating.


So, what can you do if your cholesterol is "high" or you have a risk of heart disease?

First and foremost, if you smoke, seek support to stop immediately. You must address your diet and remove high-glycemic foods like refined flours, sugars (real and artificial), remove rancid oils and foods with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils - READ those food labels. Add in fiber-rich foods, leafy greens, berries, mushrooms and grass-fed meats. Eat real butter, coconut oil and ghee. Don't use inflammatory vegetable oils, like canola, soybean and corn oil. Lower the amount of grains you eat. We don't need bread or crackers at every meal. Movement of some kind is critical to keep your lymph fluid clean. Exercise pumps our lymphatic system and helps move out toxins. Hydration is critical for so many bodily functions. Move away from dehydrating beverages like soda, coffee, alcohol and diurectic drugs (work with your doctor).

Theses can seem like simplistic, easy changes that you may already know, but putting them into action is difficult. I know because I was there. It took me a year to create the change that I needed to lose 50 pounds and reverse the disease in my body. It's something I work on every day.

If this is something you would like to work on, let's chat.