And the permanent, drug-free solution for keeping your levels healthy
Of all the potentially life threatening illnesses, heart disease may be the one surrounded by the most confusion and misdirection. And no aspect is more rife with misunderstanding than cholesterol.
No matter how much headway we seem to make in uncovering the real threats to your heart, cholesterol seems forever etched in the public perception as the No.1 risk factor.
And, unfortunately, that’s just one of the myths associated with cholesterol. But if you’re truly going to protect yourself from cardiovascular disease, you need to know the whole truth—and nothing but the truth—about this misunderstood and much-maligned substance. Including why following the mainstream cholesterol guidelines may put you in danger.
But let’s start by exposing a few of the most predominant myths about cholesterol.
Myth#1: Cholesterol is a harmful substance
The human body needs cholesterol for normal metabolism, hormonal function, and other physiologic processes. In fact, when your body doesn’t have enough cholesterol it makes more.
Chemically, cholesterol is a fat. But unlike other fats, it supplies no calories to the body. Instead, it’s an essential building block for molecules, cells, and tissues. It forms a component of all cellular membranes throughout the body—and is particularly critical in brain and nerve cells.
Cholesterol is also an essential component of many hormones, including estrogens, testosterone, and cortisone, the adrenal cortical hormone.
Skin cells also convert cholesterol to vitamin D in the presence of sunlight. And vitamin D is a critical nutrient (which also functions like a hormone in many ways).
Myth#2: high cholesterol in the diet raises your risk of heart disease
Heart disease is only partially related to cholesterol levels in the blood. And researchers have known this since the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Actually, University of Pennsylvania scientists studying primates at the Philadelphia Zoo initially made this discovery. They found that changes in cholesterol in the diet did not explain changes in blood cholesterol levels in the animals. And, further, changes in blood cholesterol did not explain changes in heart disease!
So, starting more than 50 years ago, there were clues that dietary cholesterol is at least two steps removed from actually developing heart disease.
And, when it comes to heart disease, there are two silent killers— high blood pressure and stress—that are much more dangerous than cholesterol.
Myth#3: you should keep your cholesterol below the recommended “normal” level of 200
Of course, 200 is considered normal today. But who knows what “normal” will be tomorrow?
A “normal” blood cholesterol level for a given sex and age group in the U.S. is really just a statistical average for a population. One in which half (or more) of all individuals die of heart disease anyway.
Still, NIH reviews continue to revise the recommended levels of cholesterol further and further downward. And the depths they’re reaching can really no longer be considered “normal” by any standard.
Myth #4: Eating foods that contain cholesterol will raise your cholesterol levels
Even before these ridiculous NIH standards, cholesterol-containing foods have long been the villains of the supermarket and restaurant menu.
People are literally afraid to eat some fantastically nutritious (not to mention delicious) foods, for fear that their order of poached eggs or shrimp cocktail will send their cholesterol levels through the café roof.
And the mainstream dietary recommendations only encourage that mindset.
The metabolic reality is that cholesterol in the diet is not related to cholesterol in the blood. But fat in the diet is.
Any cholesterol that is present in foods (such as shellfish or eggs) is chemically broken down during digestion. The body manufactures its own cholesterol from fats that are consumed in the diet.
In fact, the liver actually uses cholesterol to form bile acids. Bile acids facilitate the digestion of dietary fats by emulsifying them. Which also helps the body absorb fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, and E, from foods.
This whole misunderstanding was actually uncovered by the early 1980s at Harvard University. But obviously, even 30 years later, there’s still a great deal of confusion. So, allow me to set the record straight, once and for all:
It’s too much fat in the diet (not cholesterol) that leads to higher cholesterol levels in the blood.
But that doesn’t mean you need to banish fat from your diet, either. Your body needs some fat. (They’re called “essential” fatty acids for a reason). Unfortunately, these days, most people are getting too much of a good thing. Which explains why there has been such a dramatic increase in the health concerns associated with excess fat.
Since fats are primarily associated with animal products, early humans probably had a difficult time getting enough fat for a healthy metabolism.
Early humans hunted for and ate meat when they could. But wild game has only 4-6% fat compared to 40-60% in modern domesticated animals. So today, we have the opposite problem from our prehistoric ancestors.
There have been many changes in the American diet over the past century as we moved from family farms to massive agribusiness. Increased fat consumption is one of them. So is a dramatic decrease in fresh fruit and vegetable intake—down from 40% to only 5% of the diet (more on this later in the issue). And along with both of these changes we also find increased heart disease rates.
Of course, pinning down the exact cause-and-effect nature of these dietary shifts in relation to heart disease is easier said than done (as hard as the scientific statisticians try). But one thing is certain: Improving your diet certainly won’t hurt.
However, the answer isn’t cutting any one food group or substance out entirely. Rather, a truly balanced diet is key. Unfortunately, you may not find the right balance for you in any government-created “pyramid” or “plate.”
Actually, you can learn more about eating a real balanced diet by observing how large animals survive in nature. For more details on this approach, see my report The Top of the Food Chain Cure for Obesity, which you received when you subscribed to Insiders’ Cures.
The best way to lower your cholesterol—permanently
While lowering fat consumption may lower cholesterol levels, it’s only a partial solution. After all, achieving a healthy cholesterol level is much more important than simply driving it lower and lower.
And the best way to do that is to lose weight—and keep it off.
While I was working as a research investigator at the NIH, I helped analyze the largest study ever done in the U.S. on health and nutrition (the U.S. Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES). And the research clearly showed that lighter body weight and lower body fat are associated with lower cholesterol levels.
In individual patients, I observed decreases in cholesterol levels in women following 14 weeks of a controlled diet and weight loss.
But it also depended on what the cholesterol levels were at the outset.
Women who began with average cholesterol levels showed modest declines in cholesterol. However, women who began with high cholesterol showed large declines after losing 20 lbs over the course of 12-14 weeks.
The bottom line here? Be careful of attempts to keep reducing cholesterol forever lower. It is one thing to lower high cholesterol to “normal” levels. But it’s another thing to try to reduce levels that are already “normal.” Our bodies may be trying to tell us something.
SB: The real difference between “good” and “bad”
You’ve undoubtedly heard the terms “good” and “bad” cholesterol. But as widely accepted as these terms have become, not many people really understand why LDL and HDL are labeled as such. Or how these types of cholesterol behave in the body.
In order to be transportable in the blood, cholesterol is bound to proteins. These proteins are called lipoproteins (the “L” at the end of both LDL and HDL).
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are made in the liver to scavenge excess cholesterol from the blood. Then they bring it back to the liver where it is broken down into bile acids, released into the intestines, used in digestion, and eliminated from the body. HDL is therefore, the “good” cholesterol.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carries cholesterol from the liver to the heart and other tissues. One of its specific jobs along the way is to help repair damaged blood vessels and arteries by “patching” them with deposits of cholesterol Unfortunately, this action has given LDL a bad name— literally.
But it’s important to remember that cholesterol is there to repair damage caused by other factors (high blood pressure, for example). It’s not causing the damage. So managing the underlying conditions in the first place is a much more effective heart-protective strategy than trying to lower cholesterol after the fact.
SB: Why cholesterol is especially important for women
Ask 10 women what their biggest health fear is, and 9 of them will likely answer “breast cancer.” But heart disease is actually the leading cause of death in both sexes. And this risk becomes especially pronounced for women after menopause.
Estrogen seems to protect against heart disease. And when estrogen levels decrease during menopause, heart disease risk increases. Researchers think this may be one reason women live longer than men. Estrogen delays their getting heart disease until they become post-menopausal.
It may also partially explain lower rates of heart disease in men who drink. Alcohol interferes with metabolizing the small amounts of estrogen that normally appear in men. So their estrogen levels increase. Which leads to less heart disease in men who drink.
It was easy for me to understand this paradox long ago as a result of the “mind- body” benefits of alcohol for reducing stress. But the metabolic effects of moderate alcohol on estrogen production shouldn’t be overlooked. Estrogen is clearly heart protective in men and women.
And since cholesterol is a building block of estrogen, we should be thinking twice about interfering with cholesterol metabolism.