Your cholesterol questions–answered

Research has shown that most men and women who suffer heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels. These studies are very important in two ways. First, they show that high cholesterol isn’t the be-all, end-all risk factor for developing heart disease. Or having a heart attack. Secondly, it shows that something else is at play. Actually, several other factors are at play…as I’ll explain in a moment.

Unfortunately, very few primary care doctors talk about these other risk factors with their patients. When they see high cholesterol numbers, they simply prescribe a statin drug. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction these days. In fact, I recently received two questions from Daily Dispatch readers asking about this problem. Here’s the first question:

I am a 53-year-old subscriber with stubbornly high cholesterol for about 15 years. I have taken statins in the past, but based on readings of your work and others, I no longer take statins. My cholesterol was last measured at 231 with LDL at nearly 199. My highest cholesterol number unmedicated was 284. My weight is 180 lbs on 6 feet of body, and triglycerides are within normal range.

Your answer may be very helpful in working with my doctor to get a more targeted solution to persistently high cholesterol.

Remember, the real focus should be to lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases. Not just to lower your cholesterol.

The truth is, every cell in the human body needs cholesterol. And when your body doesn’t have enough cholesterol, it simply makes more.

Chemically, cholesterol is a fat-like compound. But unlike other fats, it supplies no calories to the body. Instead, it’s an essential building block for molecules, cells, and tissues. And it’s particularly critical in brain and nerve cells.

Cholesterol is also an essential component of many hormones, including estrogen, testosterone, and cortisone.

Skin cells also convert cholesterol to vitamin D in the presence of sunlight. And, as you know, vitamin D is a critical nutrient. (It also functions like a hormone in many ways.)

What’s more, as I mentioned earlier, most men and women who suffer heart attacks have normal cholesterol. So, at best, high cholesterol plays a marginal role in the development of heart disease for most people. On the other hand, two silent killers–high blood pressure and stress–are much more dangerous than high cholesterol.

In fact, lowering your blood pressure to 120/80 is probably the single biggest step you can take to ward off heart disease. To read more about my recommendations for getting your blood pressure under control, you can search this topic on this website.

Dropping excess weight also helps lower blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. (Although, that reader didn’t seem to have a weight problem.) And remember, research has long shown that being underweight is an increased risk for some chronic diseases. So, the goal–as always–is moderation.

Also, anyone who has previously taken statins should definitely read my “Statin drug recovery plan” featured in the November 2013 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. If you don’t yet subscribe to my newsletter, now’s the perfect time to get started.

The second reader asked about those “other risk factors” I mentioned earlier. He wrote:

The 1/6/2014 edition of the Daily Dispatch recommends that instead of worrying about cholesterol, that I should ask my doctor about these four numbers for controlling the risk of heart disease:

1. Fasting blood glucose level
2. Fasting insulin level
3. Hemoglobin A1C (long-term measure of blood glucose)
4. Homocysteine level

What are the desirable ranges for each of these?

This is a great question.

  1. Your fasting blood glucose should ideally fall between 65 to 99 mg/dL. However, if your Hemoglobin A1C is low enough (see below), your doctor may be less concerned if your blood glucose is over 99 in a single test.
  2. A normal fasting blood insulin level is below 5. But, ideally, you want it below 3
  3. Hemoglobin A1C (long-term measure of blood glucose) should be between 4.4 and 6.5 percent.
  4. Most doctors do not measure homocysteine levels. And do not take it seriously. But they should. Your body uses homocysteine to make protein. And to build and maintain tissue. But too much homocysteine may increase your risk of stroke and certain types of heart disease. It also appears to increase your risk of peripheral artery disease, a disease of the blood vessels in your the arms, legs and feet. It may even increase your risk of dementia. The Mayo Clinic says a normal homocysteine level is between 4.4 and 10.8 micromoles per liter (µmol/L). Your homocysteine should decrease if you get plenty of folate (folic acid) and B vitamins. So make sure to eat plenty of green, leafy vegetables. These contain lots of B vitamins. You can also take a high-quality B vitamin supplement.

And one last thing…

Research shows that your vitamin D levels may also help lower your risk of heart disease. And other chronic diseases. A blood level above 50 ng/ml is healthy.

But at this time of year, no one who lives north of Atlanta, Georgia gets enough sunlight to activate production of vitamin D in the body. So, research shows that you can safely take 5,000 IU of vitamin D a day.