It is heart health month and one of the most important and regularly used metrics for heart
health is cholesterol. There are a lot of people out there with high cholesterol and prescribed
medication. According to the CDC, 95 million adult Americans have high cholesterol in 2015
and Crestor (a cholesterol lowing medication) is the second most prescribed medication. But
what does high cholesterol mean and what can you actually do about it besides medication?
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a found in food, but most importantly our body makes it ourselves. It is an
important ingredient in many areas of the body and has many functions for healing.
Our cell membranes are mostly made out of cholesterol and it helps build tissue. The cell
membrane is the outer part of the cell that protect the cell from things getting in that aren’t
supposed to, similar to our skin. Cholesterol’s function is to help firm up the membrane to keep
water-soluble molecules from entering the cell. Low cholesterol may lead to the membrane
being too fluid, allowing some molecules to pass.
The highest amount of cholesterol is found in the brain. The brain and nerves use cholesterol
extensively to function properly. The brain actually makes its own cholesterol, the same way
the liver does for the body.
All our sex hormones require cholesterol to be made, including testosterone, estrogen, and
cortisol. These hormones play an important role in energy, focus, mood, fertility, and stress
Cholesterol is also required for the production of Vitamin D, which is triggered through
sunlight. All foods that contain Vitamin D are also foods that contain a good amount of
cholesterol, such has fatty fish and beef liver. Vitamin D is an incredibly important nutrient for
bone health, immune system, mood and many other things.
Cholesterol is also converted into bile from the liver. Bile is then pushed to the gall bladder for
storage while it waits for a fatty meal to initiate secretion into the intestines. Bile is needed to
absorb fats and fat-soluble nutrients, such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K. Bile is also important
for excretion of fat-soluble toxins. While urination is a major way we get rid of waste, some
molecules are not soluble in water and therefore have to be excreted in our stool.
There are two main types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL. Technically there is only one type of
cholesterol. These are actually lipoproteins that carry cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol
away from the body towards the liver so the cholesterol can be removed from the body. HDL
is also a major antioxidant that protects the body from free radicals. LDL carries cholesterol
towards the body so it can use cholesterol in its many functions. LDL also heals damage to
arteries, which is why it can be considered “bad” cholesterol because when it messes up it can cause
The Ill-Effects of Cholesterol
Just like anything else, you can always have too much of a good thing. In the case of
cholesterol, too high levels have been linked with cardiovascular disease, such as heart
attacks and strokes. This occurs when cholesterol binds with other substances and form
plaque. Plaque can then stick to your arteries, creating atherosclerosis and blocks the
arteries around the heart.
This occurs mainly when LDL goes to heal arterial damage. LDL is supposed to go
beneath the surface of the artery to patch up any wounds to the artery walls, but when LDL
gets oxidized it essentially gets stuck, not healing the damage at all. This creates a
cascade of events of more oxidized LDL coming to fix the damage incorrectly and creating a
plaque, narrowing the artery. Narrow arteries are dangerous as then it is more likely for
something to get stuck preventing blood flow.
Therefore higher the LDL levels are the higher the risk of a situation like this occurring. But
more importantly is that this situation occurs when LDL gets oxidized. Oxidation happens
from free radicals, a highly reactive molecule which causes damage to anything they touch by
stripping away electrons. Our body protects ourselves against free radicals and oxidation by
antioxidants. We make our own antioxidants, such as glutathione, but also eat it in our food (fruits and vegetables mostly).
Therefore the big debate is whether high LDL is the main concern or low antioxidant status
and high free radical status is the main concern.
Luckily the treatment for both are very similar: diet and exercises. A diet rich in fruit and
vegetables will help keep the antioxidant status high and many have cholesterol lowering
properties. Fried foods, sugars, alcohol, and processed food can all increase cholesterol
levels, but can also increase free radical status. Exercise is incredibly important for blood
flow and proper utilization of cholesterol while also removing free radicals and increasing
personal supply of antioxidants high.
If you are not prepared for diet and exercise, then medication or supplementation may be
necessary, but just make sure your cholesterol doesn’t go too low. The other concern with
medication is that statin drugs, like Crestor, work by decreasing your bodies ability to produce
its own cholesterol. The pathway that leads to cholesterol production also leads to CoQ10
production. CoQ10 is an important antioxidant and energy source for muscles, the heart, and
the brain. If you are taking a statin medication it is important to also take a CoQ10
supplement since your body won’t be making as much.