Shedding Light On Cholesterol

Cholesterol is essential for many bodily functions. Unfortunately, the news surrounding the compound is all negative and it’s earned a bad wrap -more or less, rightfully so. I’d like to clear some things up about my new favorite topic, cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a naturally occurring sterol metabolite circulating in the bloodstream of all animals. Sterols are a subgroup of steroids, which exist in plants and animals alike. Naturally occurring or serum cholesterol is a vital component for the manufacture of bile acid, steroid hormones (such as aldosterone, hydrocortisone, estrogen and testosterone) and naturally produced vitamin D. It’s also the main building material of cell membranes and facilitates chemical signaling between cells. 

Humans make cholesterol in their cells, the liver, and to some degree the small intestine. All the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins you eat eventually breakdown into nutrients, which eventually breakdown into carbon. Carbon is what your liver uses to make cholesterol. Your liver is responsible for most of your serum cholesterol and can produce between 700-1,000 mg per day; it does so in response to chemical queues from your body. Once your liver receives notice to make more cholesterol, it wraps the compound inside proteins and lipids, AKA low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and sends it into the bloodstream. Any unused LDL gets taken back to the liver coupled with a high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL essentially cleans up unused LDL. Once returned to the liver, the LDL and HDL get recycled and turned into products such as bile. Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL) can also be found circulating in your blood.

Unfortunately, any excess LDL that your HDL can not clean up, begins to accumulate and form plaque in your arteries. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. The plaque can eventually clog you arteries and cause a heart attack or stroke. Interestingly, if a piece of plaque breaks lose, your body will rush to repair the damage and could inadvertently cause or further increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.

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The rate of plaque accumulation is dependent on genetics. Some individuals can eat diets high in dietary cholesterol and their liver compensates for the surge by not producing additional cholesterol. On the other hand, some people have livers that continue to produce LDL and HDL even if the dietary levels are high; unfortunately these people are at a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis, living with heart disease and ultimately having a stroke.

Interestingly, your body makes plenty of cholesterol for healthy function. If you stopped eating foods high in cholesterol, you would be fine. Some nutritionists go so far as to suggest you’d be better off without animal products; but, that is debatable. The trick is to eat animal products in moderation. A good rule is to eat only enough meat equal to the size of a deck of playing cards  -I think that amount is sufficient for the entire day. Unfortunately, the standard American diet (SAD) is rich in meats and dairy products. No nutritionist or government agency has suggested recommended daily allowances for cholesterol intake; perhaps we should emphasize the dangers of dietary cholesterol and set the bar low. It turns out the average American is consuming as much as 900 mg of additional cholesterol each day. This is leading to the increasingly frequent incidence of heart disease.

The difference between levels of dietary cholesterol in terrestrial meats and fish is debatable. Most nutritionists agree that substituting fish instead of meat, much like the Japanese and Eskimo peoples, will lower your cholesterol; but, so will substituting beans for meat. Fish oil or omega-3, a rich polyunsaturated fatty acid has been touted as a natural cholesterol lowering supplement. Scientists think omega-3’s lower blood pressure and make cholesterol rich blood less sticky and thus able to flow more freely throughout the body.

Luckily, medical researchers are working on developing synthetic HDL supplements to help patients with high levels of LDL. See also, my article Synthetic HDL, from 3/29/2011. In the meantime, patients suffering from high cholesterol can be prescribed phytosterol (plant sterol) supplements, which have been found to block cholesterol absorption in the intestines of humans; essentially helping to keep circulating cholesterol from rising. Unfortunately, researchers have suggested that phytosterols block more than cholesterol absorption and are suggesting more research. In addition to supplements, people at risk of developing heart disease can eat foods rich in whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and Cherrios. Evidence suggests that eating a diet rich in whole grains can reduce your risk of heart disease by as much as 30%. Researchers are not sure what in the whole grains are causing the reduction, but it seems to be working. Eggplants and dark chocolate (yea!) are also thought to lower serum cholesterol. 

We should all be eating a diet rich in whole grains, as well as limiting our dairy fat and meat consumption. All this knowledge has led me to make salad for dinner; a salad with no meat and none of my most favorite blue cheese dressing. Knowing how bad dietary cholesterol is for your health, makes me wonder if early humans were mostly, if not entirely, vegetarians…Hmmmm?

For more information, I really enjoyed reading: Discovery Health: What’s the Difference Between LDL and HDL

The statements and observations made in my post are my own personal views and or results of experiences.  I am not a medical doctor nor am I giving medical advice.  I have no intention for my thoughts and opinions to be misused or misguiding.  Again, they are only my personal opinions.  I am not offering free medical advice in any way.  I would suggest before taking any of the vitamins or herbs I mention in my post that you discuss the affects or conflicts they may have with any prescription or nonprescription medication(s) you are currently taking prescribed or not prescribed by your medical doctor. 

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