Cholesterol: Enemy #1 … or #1 Friend? – Part 1

There’s no denying cholesterol has a bad wrap. You may be surprised to learn, however, that cholesterol isn’t pure evil. In fact, cholesterol is crucial to our good health. Sounds dramatically important? It sure is. In this post, you’ll get straight talk on why cholesterol is important to your life, when it can cause problems, and which blood tests are most important for understanding your cholesterol status. (Spoiler alert: you might be surprised!).

While some foods contain very small amounts of cholesterol, your liver makes most of the cholesterol in your body to synthesize the following critical substances:

  • Steroid hormones including sex hormones (such as estrogen and testosterone), corticosteroids (such as cortisol) and mineralocorticoids (such as aldosterone)
  • Vitamin D from UVB rays absorbed in your skin. In A previous post, we discussed how 7-dehydrocholesterol on your skin, a form of cholesterol, is converted to vitamin D3
  • Bile acids used by your body to break down and absorb fat in the digestive tract

Finally, without cholesterol, the membranes of your cells would have no structure. Cholesterol is a key building block in tissue development for continuous cell generation and healing injuries. Pretty cool, right?!

Cholesterol’s function in healing injuries is exactly the reason why too much of it can lead to atherosclerosis and eventually heart disease. Natural levels: good guy. Excessive levels: bad guy Cholesterol is our friend until things go awry, in what’s known as “the inflammation hypothesis.” Let’s learn how cholesterol can become damaging.

Imagine your blood vessel is a garden hose. When the wall of your blood vessel gets injured, your body signals a host of cells and substances to remove and heal the damage. It sends immune cells like phagocytes to gobble up the injured tissue. Cholesterol, carried by lipoproteins, is also sent to build healthy, new tissue. Much like you would apply heavy-duty tape or liquid sealant to fix the punctured hose.

Now, the proper way to fix a garden hose or your blood vessel would be from the inside. But, that’s hard to do while blood (or water in the hose metaphor) flows quickly and constantly through the vessel. So instead you fix the damage from the outside, perhaps peeling away the punctured sections and using special materials to seal it. Your body makes the same adjustments.

Since your blood is flowing so quickly, your body’s healing substances need to go under the surface of the vessel to heal the injury. As the injury is healing, more and more phagocytes, lipoproteins with cholesterol, and blood platelets collect near the injury to create a bump in the vessel known as a “plaque.” The new plaque disrupts blood flow just like a damaged section of your hose would slow down the flow of water. You’ll have to turn up the hose pressure to get the water flowing properly, much like your heart will have to increase your blood pressure to keep the body running properly.

So your body uses cholesterol to create healthy, new tissue. Yet the more cholesterol available in your blood, the more of it gets attracted to the injured parts of your blood vessels, creating even bigger plaques and thus higher blood pressure.

To make matters worse, phagocytes sent to gobble up injured tissue also ingest any oxidized lipoproteins, making them huge and at risk of bursting (and causing more issues.)

At this point, you might be wondering:

  • What can I do to remove excess cholesterol from my blood?
  • What is a lipoprotein and how on earth do those buggers get oxidized?
  • How can I to stop blood vessels from getting injured ASAP?

Let’s start from the top. Removing excess cholesterol from the blood naturally is possible with the magic of “soluble fiber.” As mentioned earlier, cholesterol is a component of the bile acids your body uses to digest fat. Each time you consume fat in a meal, bile (along with cholesterol) makes its way to the small intestine to aid in digestion. This is where soluble fiber comes in. Soluble fiber found in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and most whole grains is soluble in water. When it mixes with the water in your digestive tract, it forms a gel. This gel acts like a sponge that soaks up cholesterol and moves it to your colon for excretion in feces. Voila!

Without soluble fiber, where does the cholesterol go? Well, the body is an efficient machine and very little goes to waste—it reabsorbs the cholesterol and sends it back to the blood. Soluble fiber is a mechanism that allows so many foods to be labeled “heart healthy” because it helps remove excess cholesterol from the blood, helping to create smaller plaques and less pressure on the heart to pump faster and harder.

Please keep in mind: if you have very high levels of cholesterol and do not have hypercholesterolaemia, you’ll need to combine dietary changes with supplements that have evidence of lowering cholesterol such as plant sterols, red bean yeast, CoQ10 and more.

So, how can you boost your intake of soluble fiber?

Some simple ideas include:
• Add whole grains like rolled or steel cut oats to your morning breakfast routine • Pop fruits like apples, oranges or avocados in your lunch bag • Incorporate sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts on your dinner plans • Bake some black beans or chickpeas until crisp for a healthy snack • Sprinkle ground flaxseeds on your peanut butter, oats or salad

Ultimately, find a few foods with high soluble fiber that you can weave into your daily diet. Set a goal and start noshing! You and your body will be happy you did.

(Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 for more knowledge and juicy action steps on healthy cholesterol!)