Monday, August 25, 2008

Cholesterol: the good, the bad and the ugly

There’s been much talk of cholesterol in recent years with regards to different types, where it comes from and what are the best ways of lowering it? Conflicting information has left most of us a little confused in knowing what we should be doing in order to address this common health concern.

Cholesterol is an integral component of every cell and plays a vital role in hormone production, digestion and brain & nerve function. It travels through the blood stream attached to carrier proteins called lipoproteins. LDLs (low density lipoproteins) are the major carriers of cholesterol and as they encourage cholesterol deposits in the arteries, they are known as “bad cholesterol”. HDLs (high density lipoproteins) carry unneeded cholesterol from the cells back to the liver to be broken down for elimination and this is known as “good cholesterol”[1].

Confusion about cholesterol exists because many people don't understand there is a difference between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol. Blood cholesterol is the cholesterol that circulates in your blood. About 80 per cent is produced by your liver. Dietary cholesterol is found in foods from animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Only about 20 per cent of the cholesterol in your blood comes from eating foods that contain it.

A high blood cholesterol level, especially high LDL, is a major risk factor of heart disease. If you have high blood cholesterol or have a history of heart disease in your family, reducing your cholesterol to a healthy level is important for long-term good health.

What causes high cholesterol levels?

Dietary cholesterol is often blamed for high cholesterol levels, but for most people, cholesterol from foods has little effect on blood cholesterol levels. Other contributing factors to consider are:

  • Genetics: influences how fast LDL is made and removed from the blood.
  • Weight: excess weight may increase LDL levels. Weight loss especially helps to lower LDL & triglycerides and raise HDL levels. If you have tried to lose weight in the past with no success, you may have an underlying hormonal imbalance that needs to be addressed.
  • Exercise: regular physical activity may lower triglycerides and raise HDL.
  • Age & gender: before menopause, women usually have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. This reverses after about age 50.
  • Alcohol use: moderate (1-2 drinks daily) alcohol intake increases HDL cholesterol but does not lower LDL cholesterol. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver and heart muscle, may contribute to high blood pressure and raise triglyceride levels.
  • Stress: stress can raise blood cholesterol levels over the long term. One way it may do this is by affecting your habits. For example, when some people are under stress, they console themselves by eating sweet and fatty foods or by having a comforting bottle of red.
  • Insulin resistance: seen in conditions such as PCOS and diabetes is closely linked to high cholesterol levels, weight gain and obesity.

Treatment strategies

Statin drugs have been the drug of choice to treat elevated cholesterol levels but these potent drugs have serious side effects that need to be taken into consideration. Statins have a demonstrated ability to lower Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which leads to fatigue, muscle weakness, soreness and cardiac weakness. When you treat high cholesterol with a drug you are in no way, shape or form treating the cause and it should come as no surprise that artificial drugs can cause serious side effects.

Following are some natural strategies to implement:

Dietary control: dairy products, meat and eggs all contain cholesterol but avoiding these foods could prevent you from getting some important nutrients such as calcium, protein, iron, zinc or B vitamins. Choose lower-fat dairy products such as buttermilk or skim milk. Enjoy fish more often, choose lean cuts of meat, have poultry without skin and limit serving sizes to about the size of your palm.

Normalize insulin levels: by eliminating sugar and processed grains, which will also normalize weight, increase your energy and lower blood pressure and triglycerides.

Increase fiber: helps eliminate excess cholesterol - include whole grain breads and cereals, fruits & vegetables and include more meat alternatives such as beans, peas, lentils andtofu.

Reduce saturated and trans fats: found in meat, egg yolks, dairy products made from whole milk and foods that contain hydrogenated fat, including palm or coconut oils, margarine, fries, doughnuts, fried chicken and fish, crackers, chips, cookies and bakery products.

Increase cholesterol lowering fats: monounsaturated fats are found mostly in canola, olive and peanut oils, nuts (especially almonds and walnuts) and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats are found in oils made from sunflowers, safflowers, corn, soybeans, nuts, flaxseed and sesame seeds. Good quality fish oil can also help regulate cholesterol levels

Policosanol: a supplement containing sugar cane wax has been found to significantly lower cholesterol.

Chromium: lowers total cholesterol, improves HDL to LDL ratio, and stabilizes blood sugar levels to reduce cravings & mood swings.

Reduce caffeine intake: coffee can elevate blood cholesterol levels, more than doubling the risk of heart disease[2] and puts undue strain on the adrenal system.

Exercise regularly

The bottom line is you need to take charge of your cholesterol, no one can do it for you. The answer is not as simple as “popping a pill”, synthetic, natural or otherwise; diet & lifestyle changes are your first lines of defense – so what are you waiting for!

Emma Scasni is a qualified naturopath at MassAttack Health Clinic and has a keen interest in women’s health. Emma is passionate about all aspects of natural health and is happy to offer support and advice to new and existing MassAttack members. MassAttack specializes in natural treatment programs for women with hormonal imbalances such as PCOS, Fibroids, Endometriosis & thyroid imbalance. Narelle Stegehuis, CEO of MassAttack, is the recipient of the Australian Naturopathic Excellence Award 2006 and can be contacted at narelle@massattack.com.au