Cholesterol Myths:
Cholesterol and Diet Aren't What You Think...

cholesterol lowering olive oil

There are a number of cholesterol myths in regard to cholesterol and diet that need debunking. Though virtually everyone has heard of cholesterol, most people don't really understand what it is and what it does in the body. Many take daily medicines called statins, often combined with cholesterol lowering diets, in the hope of lowering cholesterol numbers in the belief that this will help prevent coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis.

However, a lot of what is generally taken for granted about cholesterol is actually false. Many doctors are not up to date with modern cholesterol research and help spread cholesterol myths that have long since been debunked by scientists.

Some of the more persistent cholesterol myths:

  • Cholesterol in general is bad
  • All high cholesterol levels are bad for you
  • There is "good" cholesterol (High Density Lipoprotein or HDL) and "bad" cholesterol (Low Density Lipoprotein or LDL)
  • Cholesterol is the main cause of coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis
  • Eating food rich in saturated fats and cholesterol increases your cholesterol level (the most common of the cholesterol myths)
  • Taking medicines that lower cholesterol levels prolong life

Now to replace these cholesterol myths with some facts...

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a nutrient that is essential for many of your body's functions. First of all, your body is made up of about 50 to 100 trillion cells. Every one of those cells is surrounded by a membrane that is mostly made up of a special fat. Cholesterol is an important part of these cell membranes because it stabilizes them. Without cholesterol the membranes would fall apart.

Secondly, cholesterol plays a key role in the communication between nerve cells. Without cholesterol your brain would cease to function. Cholesterol also plays a key role in the functioning your immune system, and is the main building block for several of your body's hormones.

Cholesterol and Diet

Though you can't live without cholesterol, you can easily survive without eating it because your liver is capable of building all the cholesterol you need from fats, called lipids or triglycerides. The fact that you don't need to eat cholesterol doesn't mean, however, that you shouldn't eat it.

Dietary cholesterol myths are based on flawed studies. Most of the cholesterol you eat isn't absorbed by your intestines and ends up being excreted. Any excess cholesterol that the body doesn't need is sent to the liver, which dumps it in the bile. Bile is released into the intestines in order to help digestion, after which it is excreted. Therefore, a low cholesterol diet has very little impact, if at all.

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Current research shows that some people have naturally high cholesterol levels, while others have low levels. That means that the “one cholesterol standard for all” issued by the American Heart Association is not necessarily a good idea. Furthermore it has been shown that some medical problems, such as inflammation, can stimulate the body to produce more cholesterol in an attempt to heal the problem.

Cholesterol is sent to the site of a wound or infection to help in the healing process, which is why cholesterol is found in those with heart damage. Lowering cholesterol levels is like reducing the number of firemen sent to extinguish the flames in your burning house! In fact, low cholesterol levels are associated with all sorts of problems, such as depression, anemia, liver disease, malnutrition and certain types of cancer.

Scientists are discovering new things about cholesterol and diet every day. Still, based on current research, some points stand out:

  • Eating saturated fats does not increase the body's cholesterol level. Most saturated fats increase the levels of LDL and HDL, which is not the same as cholesterol.
  • Unsaturated fats and some saturated fats actually reduce levels of LDL and HDL.
  • Trans-fats raise LDL and lower HDL, causing far more problems than saturated fat.
  • Overeating and under-exercising causes the accumulation of dangerous belly fat, which increases cholesterol levels as well as your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes.
  • Fiber and certain other plant compounds reduce cholesterol levels in the body.
  • Antioxidants reduce the amount of damage done to LDL, making LDL less likely to cause problems in the heart and arteries.

High Density and Low Density Lipoprotein

Our body has two different kinds of lipoproteins that can bind to cholesterol and then dissolve in the blood. One type, the Low Density Lipoprotein or LDL (often called “bad cholesterol”) transports cholesterol from the liver to wherever it is needed in the body. The other type, the High Density Lipoprotein or HDL (often called “good cholesterol”) transports cholesterol back to the liver when it is no longer needed elsewhere. LDL and HDL “cholesterol” is actually not cholesterol at all!

There is actually only one type of cholesterol, and it is neither good nor bad.

Though you often hear about “good” and “bad” cholesterol, this is another of the cholesterol myths. What people are really talking about are the lipoproteins that help transport cholesterol in the blood. Because cholesterol is a fat, it is not water-soluble and needs a “ride” to be able to be transported through the bloodstream.

Since the cholesterol bound to LDL travelling from the liver goes to places that have been damaged, like arteries and the heart where it might cause a problem, you can understand why it might be thought of as bad by people.

Cholesterol bound by HDL, on the other hand, is on its way to the liver to be either stored or gotten rid of, indicating that the body's damage has been repaired, so it is often assumed to be good. However, it's more complicated than that, as neither causes harm by itself.

Matters of the Heart

One of the greatest of the cholesterol myths is that it is assumed to play a key role in coronary heart disease, coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis. Current research shows that rather than it playing a key role, it is really more like a cameo appearance. While the entire story is not yet understood, what is known is that LDL, often with cholesterol bound to it, can get stuck in the arterial lining. This happens for a number of reasons.

The amount of LDL in the blood is a factor, but not an important one. There are plenty of people with low LDL levels who have coronary heart disease, and plenty of people with high LDL levels who don't.

More important are the arteries themselves. Due to hereditary factors, previous damage to the artery, or inflammation, arteries can have cracks and irregularities that LDL gets stuck in. Sometimes LDL molecules have been damaged by free radicals in our bloodstream. Damaged LDL gets stuck easier than undamaged LDL. Cholesterol becomes part of the disease, but it is not the cause. It has become a victim of circumstantial evidence!

Medicines that lower cholesterol levels

Of all the cholesterol myths, the one most adored by the pharmaceutical companies is the myth that statins prolong life by lowering cholesterol. Statins are medicines that lower cholesterol levels by slowing down its production in the liver.

The problem, however, is that cholesterol itself is not the root cause of any problems in our body. High cholesterol is at best a signal that something else is wrong. Taking away the signal by slowing down cholesterol production does not remove the problem. And since cholesterol plays a part in our immune system, lowering cholesterol levels may in some cases make matters even worse.

On top of that, statins have many unpleasant side effects, such as liver problems, memory problems, fatigue, and muscle pain. The benefits of statins have only been demonstrated in middle-aged men with a pre-existing heart condition or atherosclerosis. Women, men without heart conditions or atherosclerosis, and anyone who is older or younger than middle age seems better off without statins, according to research. Of course, consult with your doctor before making any changes to the medications you currently take.

What can you do to lower cholesterol naturally?

Given the cholesterol myths we have dealt with above, some simple recommendations can be made. To avoid the damage that creates the need for your body to manufacture more cholesterol, you should follow healthy eating guidelines and get enough exercise. And though there is a link between cholesterol and diet, it is not what was previously thought.

It isn't necessary to avoid saturated fats and cholesterol-containing foods like eggs and meat. All you need to avoid is overeating in general, and eating trans-fats in particular. Among the foods shown to be useful in lowering cholesterol are oatmeal, garlic and olive oil. In addition, be sure to eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. The Mediterranean diet is rich in these foods and those who eat it usually have excellent cholesterol levels. And remember that high cholesterol in itself is not a problem, it is more a signal that there is some damage in your body that needs attention.

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