Cholesterol and Heart Disease

Let’s start by checking your answers from page one.  Here are the correct answers:

1.  The lower your cholesterol levels, the healthier you will be.
FALSE. Having cholesterol levels too low is as dangerous to your health, if not more so, than having cholesterol levels too high.

2.  To reduce your risk of heart disease, you should keep your cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL.
FALSE. Cholesterol ranges were artificially lowered to encourage the sales of cholesterol lowering drugs. A cholesterol level between 175-275 is pretty healthy, with 200-250 being an optimal range.

3.  Cholesterol helps protect the body from environmental toxins and infection.
TRUE. Cholesterol binds environmental toxins and the endotoxins produced by bacteria to protect your body.

4.  Statin drugs help to reduce the incidence of heart disease by lowering cholesterol.
FALSE. The very small reduction in the risk of heart disease that statins provide appears to be due to anti-inflammatory effects, not their cholesterol lowering effects. But this benefit is offset by the side effects of statins, including the fact that they increase the risk of death from other causes.

5.  Cholesterol is important in maintaining fertility and sex drive.
TRUE. Cholesterol is the building block for all steroidal hormones, including estrogen and testosterone, which is why low cholesterol can cause infertility.

6.  Eating foods high in fat will raise your cholesterol levels.
FALSE. Eating fatty foods is not linked to cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is usually due to a high carbohydrate diet, low thyroid and exposure to environmental toxins.

7. Avoiding foods that contain cholesterol will help to lower the levels of cholesterol in your blood.
FALSE. Most of the cholesterol in your body is manufactured by your liver. Dietary cholesterol accounts for a very small part of blood cholesterol.

8.  Oxidative stress and inflammation are the primary causes of cardiovascular disease.
TRUE. At least this is what the research is suggesting. I think emotional factors also play a big role.

9. The cholesterol in natural foods cannot stick to your arteries unless it becomes oxidized. 
TRUE. Natural cholesterol does not form arterial plaque, only oxidized cholesterol, which is found exclusively in processed foods containing dehydrated milk, cheese and butter.

10. HDL cholesterol is good cholesterol, while LDL is bad cholesterol.
FALSE. You need both HDL and LDL cholesterol to be healthy.

11. Low cholesterol levels increase your risk of cancer.
TRUE. The lower your cholesterol level, the higher your risk of cancer. This is importantant to know because cancer is the number one cause of death between age 46-75. Heart disease doesn't become the leading cause of death until after age 75. Thus, you're more likely to have your life cut short by cancer than by heart disease.

How well did you do? Surprised by the answers? Most people are because they’ve bought into the cholesterol myth.  Read further to learn why these are the correct answers.

Cholesterol is Vital to Life

Cholesterol molecule from WikipediaCholesterol belongs to a group of compounds called sterols. It is, by far, the most abundant sterol in the human body. Cholesterol is a waxy substance, a lipoprotein (meaning a fatty “lipo” protein compound) that has many important functions in the body. The most important of these is in the formation of cholic acid, which is used to make bile salts. Bile salts are used to emulsify and digest fat. Between 60% - 80% of the body’s cholesterol is used for this purpose. This is why low fat diets can actually increase cholesterol in the blood, by reducing the need for bile.  The cholesterol in bile is also needed to digest and absorb fat-soluble vitamins.

The second most important function of cholesterol is in the production of adrenal and reproductive hormones. Cholesterol is the basic building block for DHEA, pregnenolone, progesterone, testosterone, estrogen, aldosterone and cortisol. If cholesterol levels get too low, the body may have a difficult time making these hormones, which can result in fatigue, depression, infertility, loss of sex drive and other symptoms related to low levels of these hormones.

Another important use for cholesterol is in the skin. Along with other lipids, cholesterol helps make the skin impervious to substances that might otherwise penetrate the skin, thus helping to prevent water loss from the body. When our skin is exposed to sunlight, cholesterol is converted to vitamin D3, which is essential for the absorption and utilization of calcium, heart health and immune function.  Vitamin D3 is now recognized as the number one nutritional deficiency world-wide and low levels contribute to osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Other functions of cholesterol include its role in the immune system.  It is used to bind toxins, thereby reducing inflammation and protecting nerve and brain tissues from chemical damage. Higher cholesterol levels actually protect the body from damage during an infection by binding microbial toxins.  Cholesterol is also needed to maintain the structural integrity of all cell membranes. It provides insulation for nerve cells that conduct electrical impulses, thus helping brain function. Clearly, cholesterol is not “evil,” but is an important part of a functioning, healthy body.

More Cholesterol Myth-Busting

The liver produces about 75 percent of the cholesterol in our body. The rest comes from food.  There are several forms of cholesterol, but the two most well known are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).  LDL contains more fat and less protein, while HDL contains more protein and less fat.  

HDL is often referred to as “good” cholesterol, and LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This is actually a misperception. The body makes VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) in the liver and transforms it into LDL. LDL transports cholesterol (and the fatty acids it contains) to the tissues where it is needed. You can think of LDL as a “boat” to transport the non-water soluble fats through the liquid blood stream safely.

HDL is used to transport hormones and to transport cholesterol (and toxins it binds) back to the liver. Both forms of cholesterol are essential to health (i.e., “good”), and the body constantly adjusts the ratio of LDL to HDL to meet its needs at any given time as both are necessary for good health.

The amount of cholesterol you need depends on your age, weight and other factors, but the medical industry would like to keep your serum cholesterol below 200 mg./dL. This is done in spite of the fact that many perfectly healthy people have a cholesterol level well over 200. Years ago, the ranges considered normal were much higher, but they were lowered in order to push the cholesterol and heart disease hypothesis and justify the sales of cholesterol-reducing drugs.  In reality, a normal cholesterol level for most adults would be between 175 – 275.  Unfortunately, many people who are well within this reasonable range are being pressured by doctors to take cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Cholesterol and Heart Disease

arterial plaqueAfter all this you may be wondering, so what’s the connection between cholesterol and heart disease?  Well, it is true that cholesterol is a factor in the build up of arterial plaque, but cholesterol, by itself does not cause arterial plaque to form.  In order to make cholesterol stick to the arteries, it has to become oxidized.  In other words, it has to suffer free radical damage.

Oxidized cholesterol is not found in natural foods like butter, eggs and red meat. However, when eggs, milk and butter are processed and turned into powdered eggs, milk, cheese and so forth the cholesterol does oxidize.  Thus, oxidized cholesterol is only found in processed foods, such as cake mixes. Cholesterol can also become oxidized due to a lack of antioxidant nutrients or environmental toxins.  Cigarettes for example are loaded with toxic chemicals, which is why smokers have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.

Once the cholesterol becomes sticky, it latches onto the endothelium lining the arteries.  This triggers an immune reaction that can become an out of control inflammatory “fire” in the lining of your arteries.  This is where the arterial plaque the causes heart disease comes from.  

The major thing to remember here is that it doesn’t matter if your cholesterol levels are high or low.  What matters is that cholesterol becoming oxidized and is there an inflammatory reaction in the lining of your arteries.  In short, inflammation is the thing you really need to control if you want to avoid cardiovascular disease, not cholesterol.

Here’s another fact to consider: if cholesterol is the cause of hardening of the arteries, then why does arterial plaque form in high pressure areas of the cardiovascular system (arteries) and not in low pressure areas of the cardiovascular system (veins) where the blood moves much slower. It seems reasonable to assume that if high cholesterol levels caused it to stick to your blood vessels it would stick more easily to areas where the blood was moving more slowly.
It’s very possible that plaque formation in arteries is like a scab forming on a wound. It forms to protect the wound. When arteries are damaged by inflammation, arterial plaque may be forming to  protect the area and keep if from suffering a “blow out.”  In other words, it may be reinforcing an already damaged artery wall to protect it.

Problems with Statins

statin pathwaysRoughly $15 billion of statin drugs are sold annually and taken by people who want to reduce their risk of heart disease. There are some studies that suggest that stain drugs (used to lower cholesterol) provide a slight reduction in the risk of heart disease. However, before you jump on the statin bandwagon, there are a few things you should know.  

First, statins can have horrible side effects. They can contribute to memory loss, peripheral neuropathy and liver damage. They can decrease sex drive and even cause infertility.  Side effects can include upset stomach, headache, fatigue, skin rash, difficulty concentrating, erectile dysfunction, difficulty sleeping and nightmares and peripheral neuropathy.

Statins block the ability of the liver to manufacture cholesterol.  Unfortunately, the pathway they block is the same one that produces Coenzyme Q10, a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cardiovascular inflammation and is involved in energy production.  Worst of all, statins increase your risk of dying of other causes, such as cancer.  So, they don’t improve quality of life or lifespan in most people.

Secondly, the research also suggests that this is not because of their cholesterol-reducing action, but rather an anti-inflammatory action. There are much safer ways to reduce inflammation than statins, so it makes little sense for most people to use them. If a person is going to stay on a statin drug, however, it is wise for them to take at least Co-Q10 50 daily to reduce side effects.  

They may also wish to switch to the natural product Red Yeast Rice, which is the natural source for the cholesterol-lowering compounds found in statin drugs.  However, even if one is taking Red Yeast Rice, they should still take Co-Q10 as it is blocking the same metabolic pathways in the liver as statins.
If you have to reduce your cholesterol before taking a blood test (so you can get better insurance rates or avoid having your doctor pressure you to take statins), then do a gallbladder flush the day before the test. By stimulating the liver to dump a lot of bile, your cholesterol level will come down temporarily.

Here's some additional things to consider about statins showing they're not all they are cracked up to be.

After 14 days of treatment with atorvastatin (Lipitor®), CoQ10 levels were reduced by 49% 
— Columbia University Study

Once CoQ10 is lacking, heart problems can quickly follow, even in people who have no history of cardiovascular disease

After only 6 months of taking low dose Lipitor®, 71% of adults who were healthy aside from mildly elevated cholesterol, developed early heart muscle dysfunction
—American Journal of Cardiology

No correlation between high cholesterol levels and heart disease has been found
— British Medical Journal

All statins (including fibrates) caused cancer in animals at doses comparable to standard human doses
—Journal of the American Medical Association

A randomized, placebo-controlled trial linked statin medications to increased risk of breast cancer
—New England Journal of Medicine

Statins increase the risk of death.  Those participating in the study with the lowest level of LDL, had the highest rates of mortality.  Higher levels of total cholesterol were associated with a lower risk of death
—American Journal of Cardiology

If You Must Reduce Cholesterol

The most natural way to reduce cholesterol is to increase your consumption of good fats (like butter, olive oil and coconut oil)and fiber.  Remember that most of the cholesterol in your body is used to make bile to digest fats.  Adding fiber to the diet causes the cholesterol in the bile to be bound by the fiber and removed from the body.

There are also nutrients that can be helpful. In the form of nicotinic acid, niacin can increase your level of HDL cholesterol by 25 to 35 percent (more than any drug), while lowering LDL cholesterol. So, if the fiber isn’t lowering the cholesterol fast enough take one niacin once or twice a day.  

Garlic is also useful for improving cholesterol levels. A University of Pennsylvania study found that garlic extract lowered participants’ total cholesterol levels by 7% and decreased their LDL levels by 10%.  More importantly, research shows it helps lower blood pressure and can help to prevent, and possibly even reverse arteriosclerosis.  Besides including garlic in your diet by eating it in your foods, you can also take garlic supplements.

Other herbs that may be helpful include guggul lipids, artichoke, coleus and ho shou wu. These are the key herbs in herbal Cholesterol Balancing Formulas, a list of which can be found in the Modern Herbal Medicine book.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids can help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease because they help reduce inflammation.  Hawthorn berries also reduce cardiovascular inflammation and have other beneficial properties that support heart health.  Both are safe to take regularly.
High cholesterol can also be a sign of low thyroid. The iodine in the thyroid hormone is needed to burn fats.

On page three you'll learn about the dangers of low cholesterol and things you can do to actually reduce your risk of heart disease.