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Cholesterol - Good or Bad?

by Jeanne Rhodes

Far from being some alien invader in our bodies, cholesterol is a solid, waxy substance produced by all animals as part of their normal metabolism. Cholesterol is not a fat but is technically classed as a “lipid”, a group of fat and fat-like substances insoluble in water but soluble in fat solvents. Cholesterol, essential to animal life, is routinely made by the liver from dietary saturated fats, trans fats, simple sugars and refined carbohydrates.

Cholesterol is important to every cell of your body, providing needed rigidity to all cell membranes. Membranes are porous, letting nutrients and hormones in while keeping wastes and toxins out. If totally devoid of cholesterol they would explode from internal water pressure. Brain cell membranes are rich in cholesterol, the brain being about 70% cholesterol (dry weight).

One of the most important functions of cholesterol is to serve as the basic raw material for many major hormones including testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, cortisone and aldosterone. Without these first three hormones there would be no sex life; without cortisone your body could not cope with stress; and without aldosterone sodium and water levels could not be properly balanced.

Cholesterol is found in the skin making it resistant to the absorption of water-soluble toxins and helps hold a healthy amount of water in the body by reducing loss of water through the skin. Vitamin D is made when natural sunlight hits cholesterol in the skin cell membranes. After metabolic processing by the liver and kidneys, vitamin D is the chief controller of how well your body absorbs dietary calcium and phosphorus. Without cholesterol, your solid bones would be hollow and brittle since vitamin D is the chief nutrient and hormone regulator of bodily calcium and phosphorus metabolism.

As much as 70% of the body’s cholesterol is used by the liver to produce bile salts which are used to emulsify fats and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K for proper absorption. Without cholesterol-rich bile salts your body could not absorb these fat-soluble vitamins or essential fatty acids and this would result in lethal deficiency diseases.

The problem with cholesterol is not the cholesterol itself, but the EXCESS cholesterol - especially LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) cholesterol.

The liver makes cholesterol and two main carrier molecules, LDL and HDL, which bind with cholesterol so that it can travel through the bloodstream. Unfortunately LDL-bound cholesterol in EXCESS creates some major problems. It tends to stick predominately to damaged artery linings where an accumulation may eventually block blood flow through the artery. For this reason, LDL cholesterol is often called the “bad” cholesterol. Lowering your blood levels of LDL cholesterol is important, but it is equally important to protect the integrity of artery walls avoiding damaged areas that attract LDL-cholesterol build-up. The multiple-cause damage to artery walls by smoking, alcohol, nutrient deficiency (especially anti-oxidants and essential fatty acids) is an earlier and partially preventable/reversible stage of the lifelong development of heart/artery disease.

HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) carries cholesterol back to the liver from arteries and tissues throughout the body. The liver may then convert the cholesterol to bile salts, which are dumped into the intestine, and excreted from the body IF the diet is high in fiber. Without adequate fiber to increase transit time some of the excreted cholesterol will be reabsorbed which is problematic.

In summary, cholesterol is cholesterol neither good nor bad. Depending on how it’s transported in the blood, cholesterol is then viewed as either “good” or “bad.” LDL transports cholesterol to the arterial wall where it is absorbed into the slowly growing plaque. HDL removes cholesterol from the artery walls and slows or may prevent plaque. Therefore, measuring blood levels of HDL’s can gauge the risk of coronary heart disease more accurately than measuring total cholesterol. This has been supported by The Medical Center, University of Alabama and in many additional studies involving thousands of individuals.

A healthy lifestyle will prevent most cholesterol problems by supporting the body’s natural healthy cholesterol processing systems - cholesterol is produced for use by the body and any leftover is collected, taken to the liver, dumped into the colon and excreted. This beautiful process can be disrupted very quickly by unhealthy lifestyle practices.

Dr. Alexander Leaf, a professor of preventive medicine at Harvard Medical School, takes issue with the idea that cholesterol lowering requires drugs. A prudent diet along with regular exercise will reduce blood cholesterol in a substantial portion of the population, he says. Such changes have other benefits as well and will “...produce a large reduction in morbidity from heart attacks” and “will also reduce morbidity from obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cancer.”

Recent research suggests the following lifestyle changes can lower total and LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol:

* Regular aerobic exercise: walking, running, bicycling, etc.
* Reduced dietary intake of saturated and trans fats.
* Reduced dietary intake of refined carbohydrates (sugar and white flour products).
* Avoidance of smoking and reduced alcohol intake (to a minimum).
* High dietary fiber intake.
* Maintain proper weight, and/or reduce body fat in abdominal area.
* Frequent consumption of fish for essential fatty acids (esp. salmon and tuna).
* More frequent feedings - smaller meals and healthy snacks in between.
* Drink 8-12 (8 oz.) glasses of water daily.

Rhodes, B.A., M.A., is a Nutritionist, Wellness Lifestyle Strategist, Author, and Director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown.

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