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'Bad' Cholesterol Is Not Bad At All

The so-called “bad cholesterol” — low-density lipoprotein commonly called LDL — may not be so bad after all, shows a Texas A&M University study that casts new light on the cholesterol debate, particularly among adults who exercise.

Steve Riechman, a researcher in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, says the study reveals that LDL is not the evil Darth Vader of health it has been made out to be in recent years and that new attitudes need to be adopted in regards to the substance. His work, with help from colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh, Kent State University, the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, is published in the Journal of Gerontology.

Riechman and colleagues examined 52 adults from ages to 60 to 69 who were in generally good health but not physically active, and none of them were participating in a training program. The study showed that after fairly vigorous workouts, participants who had gained the most muscle mass also had the highest levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, “a very unexpected result and one that surprised us.

“It shows that you do need a certain amount of LDL to gain more muscle mass. There’s no doubt you need both — the LDL and the HDL — and the truth is, it (cholesterol) is all good. You simply can’t remove all the ‘bad’ cholesterol from your body without serious problems occurring.

It's perhaps one of the biggest health myths propagated in western culture and certainly in the United States. Unfortunately, despite dozens of studies, cholesterol has not been shown to actually cause cardiovascular disease as doctors tell us. To the contrary, cholesterol is vital to our survival, and trying to artificially lower it can have detrimental effects, particularly as we age.

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 giants.

Cholesterol is found in all humans and is a type of fat around the body. A person’s total cholesterol level is comprised of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.

HDL, usually called the “good cholesterol,” often helps remove cholesterol from arteries.

“But here is where people tend to get things wrong,” Riechman says.

“LDL serves a very useful purpose. It acts as a warning sign that something is wrong and it signals the body to these warning signs. It does its job the way it is supposed to.

“People often say, ‘I want to get rid of all my bad (LDL) cholesterol,’ but the fact is, if you did so, you would die,” the Texas A&M professor adds. “Everyone needs a certain amount of both LDL and HDL in their bodies. We need to change this idea of LDL always being the evil thing — we all need it, and we need it to do its job.”

According to the American Heart Association, about 36 million American adults have high cholesterol levels.

“Our tissues need cholesterol, and LDL delivers it,” he notes. “HDL, the good cholesterol, cleans up after the repair is done. And the more LDL you have in your blood, the better you are able to build muscle during resistance training.”

Riechman says the study could be helpful in looking at a condition called sarcopenia, which is muscle loss due to aging. Previous studies show muscle is usually lost at a rate of 5 percent per decade after the age of 40, a huge concern since muscle mass is the major determinant of physical strength. After the age of 60, the prevalence of moderate to severe sarcopenia is found in about 65 percent of all men and about 30 percent of all women, and it accounts for more than $18 billion of health care costs in the United States.

“The bottom line is that LDL — the bad cholesterol — serves as a reminder that something is wrong and we need to find out what it is,” Riechman says.

“It gives us warning signs. Is smoking the problem, is it diet, is it lack of exercise that a person’s cholesterol is too high? It plays a very useful role, does the job it was intended to do, and we need to back off by always calling it ‘bad’ cholesterol because it is not totally bad.”

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.


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