Cholesterol has long been the "boogeyman" of the medical and nutrition communities blamed for a wide variety of deadly conditions including heart disease, atherosclerosis, and stroke. This has led to astronomically high-rates of statin usage in the United States and a complete misunderstanding of the importance of cholesterol in the body... to the detriment of the health of the American public. Below I will carefully walk you through what cholesterol is, why it is absolutely vital to good health, and some reasons why it has been unfairly targeted.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is naturally produced by the liver. In fact, 75% on a person's cholesterol is produced naturally by the body... only 25% comes from the foods we eat. This should immediately cause us to question why the body would produce so much of a substance that was supposedly "bad". There are generally considered to be 2- types of cholesterol, LDL (low density lipoproteins) and HDL (high density lipoproteins). Neither of these are "bad"! They both are important and serve a specific and important function in the body! More important than the "type" of cholesterol is the "density" of the cholesterol. Unfortunately, this test is not routinely ordered when assessing cholesterol.
Why Cholesterol is so Important to your Health
Cholesterol is essential for the proper structure and function of every-single cell on Earth... how's that for importance? More specifically to us, cholesterol is the basic starting compound for every hormone in the body including testosterone, estrogen, Vitamin D, thyroid hormones, and stress handling hormones. Without adequate levels of cholesterol in the body, these hormones cannot be made and your body will not function correctly. When was the last time your doctor was concerned about your cholesterol levels being too low?
OK... So why all the Confusion and Scare Surrounding Cholesterol?
It likely all started once scientists could measure cholesterol levels in the blood. What they began to find was that people who died of heart disease often had fatty cholesterol build-up in their blood vessels (called atherosclerosis). They assumed this was due to the increased levels of cholesterol in the blood and became obsessed with measuring cholesterol levels and attempting to lower them (with statins) and discouraged eating high-cholesterol foods (like eggs). Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, this also coincided with incorrect information and demonization surrounding fats by the US government and medical community. What resulted is bad nutrition advice, bad medical advice, and bad health.
What about atherosclerosis? First, remember how cholesterol is vital to every cell on earth? That's because cholesterol helps form the structure of the outer cell membrane. When damage occurs to the lining of your blood vessels (aka: cell membranes) your body kicks-out cholesterol to help heal those vessels. More damage = more cholesterol. Build-up occurs when this damage is sustained over-time from chronic inflammation due to high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and chemicals and toxins. Instead of focusing on lowering cholesterol levels (which helps heal the vessels), we should be focusing on the root- of- the- problem... chronic inflammation!
What about cholesterol blood tests? The typical cholesterol panel tells me very little other than whether there is ENOUGH cholesterol present in the blood for proper hormone function and cellular repair. More specific cholesterol tests (which are rarely ordered) measuring cholesterol density are more useful and paint a better picture of cholesterol health rather than traditional total numbers of HDL, LDL, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.
I find it horrifying that legitimate medical professionals actually believe that entire groups of people should take statins as a form of heart disease prevention. Whether this is due to corruption on the part of the pharmaceutical industry, simple ignorance, or some other variable is unclear. The vast majority of people do not need to take a statin and can be managed through diet, lifestyle, and other conservative approaches under the care of a qualified healthcare practitioner. This is not even mentioning many of the serious side-effects and long term consequences of statins. In some cases (often genetic), statins are the last and only option. Talk with your prescribing physician before stopping statin use.
For additional information on cholesterol and statins, check out these links: