Putting The Myth To Rest:
There Is No Such Thing As Bad Cholesterol
one of the biggest health myths propagated in western culture
and certainly in the United States, is the correlation between
disease (CVD). Unfortunately, despite dozens of studies,
cholesterol has not been shown to actually cause CVD. To the
contrary, cholesterol is vital to our survival, and trying to
artificially lower it can have detrimental effects, particularly
as we age.
seems to be one of those things that strikes fear into the hearts
of many, so to speak. We have become obsessed with eating foods
low in cholesterol and fat. Ask almost anyone, and they can
tell you their cholesterol levels.
certain is that the 'little knowledge' that the media often
imparts means many folks assume cholesterol is simply a 'bad'
thing. Alternately, a good number of us may have heard the terms
'good' cholesterol and 'bad' cholesterol bandied about without
knowing much about what this really means. In fact it is a fairly
safe bet that if you asked anyone on the street for his or her
instinctive response, if asked about cholesterol, they would
probably say that we simply need to 'reduce it'.
The 'noddy-science' offered by marketing men to a generally
scientifically-naive public has led many people to believe that
we should replace certain food choices with specially developed
products that can help 'reduce cholesterol'. Naturally this
comes at a price and requires those who can afford it to pay
maybe four or five times what a 'typical ordinary' product might
cost. But is this apparent 'blanket need' to strive towards
lowering our cholesterol justified? And, indeed, is it healthy?
For anyone who has had the official diagnosis of 'high cholesterol'
in their bloodstream, they may even have embarked upon a program
of medicinal intervention. In fact it is quite likely that they
may have joined the legions of long-term pill-poppers who are
already lining the pockets of the profit-oriented pharmaceutical
But let's take a moment, now, to review some of the facts and
fallacies about the much-maligned substance: cholesterol.
Cholesterol is needed to make hormones. Without it we would
not produce estrogen, progesterone or testosterone. It is vital
for the functioning of nerve synapses and provides the structural
integrity for our cell membranes. Cholesterol is used by the
skin to help prevent water evaporation and to make our skin
waterproof. Vitamin D is synthesized from cholesterol. And bile,
used for fat digestion, consists mostly of cholesterol. The
liver produces about 90 percent of the cholesterol in our bodies;
only 10 percent comes from diet. If we eat too much cholesterol,
the liver decreases the output of cholesterol.
is a naturally occurring lipid. This means it is a type of fat
or oil and it is in fact an essential component in creating
and sustaining the membranes of the cells of all bodily tissues.
So this alone means we need cholesterol to survive! Most of
the cholesterol that is found in our bodies is actually naturally
manufactured within our own cells. However
there is also an additional contribution that we get from external
'nutritional' sources - the foods we consume. In a typical diet
providing around 400mg of cholesterol per day from food sources,
about half to two-thirds of this amount is actually absorbed
through the process of digestion. The body will normally secrete
about a gram (1000mg) of cholesterol per day into the bile via
the ducts, and approximately three-fifths of this is then re-absorbed.
Where our tissues or organs are a particularly dense complex
of cells, which have closely packed cell membranes, there will
naturally be higher levels of cholesterol. The key organs that
need, and contain, these higher amounts of cholesterol include
the liver, the brain and the spinal cord - none of which would
work well if we reduced cholesterol too much!
In effect cholesterol plays an essential role in the development
and maintenance of healthy cell walls. It is also a critical
factor in the synthesizing of steroid hormones, which
are a key factor in our natural physical development.
Being a lipid, cholesterol is fat-soluble, but it is not soluble
in blood. However it needs to be transported around the body
to the places where it can be utilized. This is why, in order
to be moved around, it must become 'associated' with certain
lipoproteins which feature a water-soluble (therefore
'blood transportable') coat of proteins. There are two key types
of lipoproteins that transport cholesterol around the body:
low-density and high-density variants. The essential cellular
function of cholesterol requires that sufficient amounts are
manufactured by specialized sub-systems (or organelles) within
the body's cells called the endoplasmic reticulum. Alternatively,
the cholesterol we need must be derived from our diet. During
the process of 'digestion and assimilation' of foods, it is
the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) that carries dietary cholesterol
from the liver to various parts of the body.
When there is sufficient cholesterol for cellular needs, the
other key transport mechanism in this amazing 'logistics system'
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL) - can take cholesterol back
to the liver from where any unnecessary excess can be processed
The 'noddy-science' of the so-called 'functional food'
manufacturers would have us believe that there is such a thing
as 'bad' cholesterol and 'good' cholesterol. This is, in fact,
totally untrue. The cholesterol itself, whether being transported
is exactly the same. Cholesterol is simply a necessary ingredient
that is required to be regularly delivered around the body for
the efficient healthy development, maintenance and functioning
of our cells. The difference is in the 'transporters' (the lipoproteins
HDL and LDL) and both types are essential for the human body's
delivery logistics to work effectively.
Problems can occur, however, when the LDL particles are both
small and their carrying capacity outweighs the transportation
potential of available HDL. This can lead to more cholesterol
being 'delivered' around the body with lower resources for returning
excess capacity to the liver.
LDL can vary in its structure and occur in particles of varying
size. It is the smaller LDL particle sizes that can easily become
'trapped' in the arteries by proteoglycans, which is,
itself, a kind of 'filler' found between the cells in all animal
and human bodies. This can then cause the cholesterol the LDL
carries to contribute to the formation of fatty deposits called
'plaques' (a process known as atherogenesis). As these deposits
build up, they restrict the arteries' width and flexibility.
This causes an increase in blood pressure and can also lead
to other cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks or strokes.
The LDL itself is consequently sometimes referred to as 'bad
cholesterol', but you can now appreciate the fact that this
is simply incorrect. In fact LDL, HDL and cholesterol are all
essential to our health. However, it seems that it has become
common for humans to have a preponderance of 'unhealthily' small
LDL particles, which can become a precursor to heart and arterial
disease due to the mechanisms described. It is apparently healthier
to have a smaller number of larger LDL particles carrying the
same quantity of cholesterol than a large number of small LDL
particles might transport, but for some reason this is less
common. This is an interesting area that demands more research.
When LDL becomes retained by the glycol-proteins in the
arteries it is subject to being oxidized by 'free radicals'.
This is when the process can become health threatening. It has
therefore been suggested that increasing the amount of antioxidants
in our diet might effectively 'mop up' free radicals, and consequently
reduce this harmful oxidation. Although the idea of consuming
foods rich in antioxidants, or even using supplements, is now
widely promoted, the scientific evidence for their efficacy
still remains to be fully established.
Another point to consider is the occurrence of substances called
'very-low-density-lipids' or VLDL, also known as triglycerides.
VLDL is converted to LDL in the bloodstream and therefore contributes
towards increased levels of LDL and to subsequent potential
cholesterol-related health problems. This is why triglycerides
are usually measured when a cholesterol test of your blood is
The production of VLDL in the liver - which amounts to a combination
of cholesterol and low-density apolipoprotein - is exacerbated
by the intake of fructose. Fructose is the type of sugar found
in many fruits, it is also a component of sucrose and of the
widely used food ingredient high-fructose corn syrup. This implies
that anyone whose LDL or triglyceride levels are unduly high
should cut back on those sweet sugary snacks, and even on the
sweeter, fructose laden fruits; not simply reduce their intake
of fatty foods!
Vitamin B3, otherwise known as niacin, on the other hand, actually
lowers the amount of VLDL, and therefore also LDL. In addition,
niacin helps to stimulate the production of helpful HDL, the
lipoprotein that carries excess cholesterol back to the liver
for excretion. However, in keeping with the best traditions
of consuming 'all things in moderation', currently recommended
upper limits for daily intake of niacin is 35mg, given that
it can have toxic effects in larger amounts. Even so, medical
professionals have been known to prescribe niacin in doses as
high as 2g, up to three times a day, for treatment of those
with dangerously high blood cholesterol levels. Naturally you
should never self-medicate with high doses of niacin without
taking appropriate medical advice.
Niacin in the diet is typically derived from high protein foods
including liver and other meats, as well as significant amounts
being found in certain nuts and whole grains.
However one of the fashionable types of pharmaceutical drugs
of recent times, introduced to treat the apparently increasing
incidence of high cholesterol levels particularly in the West,
are Statins. Most likely you have a friend or relative taking
these useless drugs (Lipitor, Mevecor, Crestor, etc.) to lower
cholesterol. Statin medications are the number-one-selling drugs
in the world. They
work by interfering with the liver function and reducing the
production of LDL. But Statins are a questionable innovation
on at least a couple of accounts. Firstly they are not without
side-effects: they can, for example, lead to the breakdown of
major muscular material, which can ultimately overwhelm the
kidneys and even cause acute renal failure.
Statins also appear to reduce the body's natural levels of the
vitamin-like, cellular protection agent known as Co-enzyme Q10.
This benzoquinone plays an important role in cellular
energy release, particularly in hard worked areas like the lungs,
liver and heart. CoQ10 (as it is sometimes called) has also
been shown to protect the brain against neurological degeneration.
But perhaps most interestingly, with respect to cholesterol,
CoQ10 also acts as an antioxidant, particularly active in protecting
the system against LDL oxidation and the potential problems
associated with this as described above. So whilst Statins might
provide a reduction in LDL per se, they might also be causing
more problems in the long-term. Naturally, as with many modern
drugs, they generally have to be taken for the long-term by
anyone who has been prescribed them.
What is particularly disturbing about Statins is, perhaps, the
fact that they may be seen as a 'quick fix' for unhealthily
high LDL, and consequently cholesterol levels throughout the
body. They need to be taken over a long period - which makes
them very profitable for drugs manufacturers. But they may also
be prescribed without the over-arching message that in order
to address any cholesterol problem 'naturally', the sufferer
must change their lifestyle and diet. Statins can seem an easy
option but may indeed merely be the beginning of a process where
the 'negative health pay-off' is simply delayed rather than
actively defused! That is not to say that in extreme cases of
high blood cholesterol, or hypercholesterolemia, there
may not be a useful role for Statin therapy when natural strategies
fail or do not prove effective, or feasible.
In truth, and in summary, cholesterol is an important and essential
substance that we need for health at a cellular level. It is
most likely that any imbalance in our cholesterol transport
system comes down to long-term poor dietary and exercise habits.
Ensuring that we consume some extra anti-oxidant foods, along
with including niacin rich foods, might well be of benefit.
But it is perhaps most important to recognize that deliberate
and continued levels of activity and the consumption of a healthful
diet is a better solution than questionable quick-fix drugs,
if we ever are diagnosed with levels of cholesterol and triglycerides
that might give cause for concern.
Ron Rosedale On The Facts About Cholesterol
Dr. Ron Rosedale talks about common cholesterol
myths, and exposes the deceptions and misconceptions that
most people have been told. (Interview with Dr. Mercola)