With the news this week about a new cholesterol lowering drug that is being recommended for quick approval by the FDA, the topic of cholesterol is on the minds of many. But most people don’t really know exactly what cholesterol is, and how it functions in the human body. To most people, cholesterol is a bad word.
But cholesterol is far from a bad thing, and understanding cholesterol can help you manage it effectively. It’s necessary for life. And it’s especially necessary for proper neurological and cell function. So just what is cholesterol, and how does it work?
The Difference Between Cholesterol, LDL, and HDL
We often hear LDL referred to as the “bad” cholesterol, and HDL the “good”, when if fact neither are actually cholesterol. They are lipoproteins that carry fats around in the bloodstream, one of these fats being cholesterol. LDL transports cholesterol and other fats to cells, and HDL carries fats away from cells.
Cholesterol itself is defined by Dictionary.com as:
a sterol, C 27 H 46 O, that occurs in all animal tissues, especially in the brain, spinal cord, and adipose tissue, functioning chiefly as a protective agent in the skin and myelin sheaths of nerve cells, a detoxifier in the bloodstream, and as a precursor of many steroids: deposits of cholesterol form in certain pathological conditions, as gallstones and atherosclerotic plaques.
As defined, cholesterol doesn’t really sound like the bad guy it’s been made out to be. 60% of our brain is comprised of fat, and 25% of that is cholesterol. It’s speculated that the reason we were able to develop such large brains as an evolving species was due to the protein, fat, and cholesterol found in wild meat. Makes sense, seeing as 20% of the cholesterol contained in our bodies is in our brains.
Cholesterol holds our cell membranes together, assists in cell signaling, and is the precursor to steroid hormone production (sex hormones, fight or flight hormones, and vitamin D), and aids in the digestion and absorption of fat molecules and fat soluble vitamins. It’s so important to our bodies that every single cell has the capability to manufacture it’s own cholesterol.
Why Cholesterol Becomes Elevated
According to Primal Body Primal Mind cholesterol can become elevated for a few different reasons:
- Over consumption of carbohydrates
- Low Thyroid
Nora Gedgaudas (board certified nutritional consultant and Neurofeedback Specialist) posits that cholesterol is ramped up in our body when something needs to be fixed. There is a genetic variance that can create hypercholesterolemia, but for most of us diet is the culprit.
It’s not cholesterol in the diet though, it’s carbohydrates. High insulin levels cause an uptick in a certain type of LDL, called lipoprotein(a). These dense, smaller versions of LDL can easily get lodged between the cells in the arterial endothelium, building up plaque. Chronic elevated insulin also causes inflammation, which breaks down tissue, which our body patches up with cholesterol.
When blood tests determine that an individual has high cholesterol via LDL/HDL analysis, most will be prescribed a statin to inhibit the production of HMG-CoA reductase, an enzyme that controls cholesterol production in the liver. The issue that can arise with this is statins work so well that they drop cholesterol into a very low range. So low that some people experience some pretty serious side effects like (this is from the FDA):
- Liver damage
- Memory loss
- Type 2 diabetes
- Muscle damage
- CoQ10 deficiency
The interesting thing about that last one is your heart needs CoQ10 to properly function, but statins prescribed to preserve heart health deplete this enzyme.
High cholesterol is serious, but you can take steps now to keep it in check in the future. Giving up pizza and soda might sound horrible, but when your cholesterol is humming along at the right levels for your body, nourishing cells and supporting healthy cognitive function, you’ll barely miss it, if at all. Keep those carbs in check, don’t fear dietary cholesterol, eat plenty of healthy fats, and eat your veggies!