The Cholesterol Myth?
The first point that we need to understand is that cholesterol itself is not the bad guy. Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance essential to life. Without cholesterol the body could not function. All animals produce cholesterol within their cells, the liver being the major manufacturing site. Nature has created this cholesterol-making process because the body needs it.
- Cholesterol is required for the synthesis of bile acids, essential for the digestion and absorption of fats in the intestine.
- The endocrine glands use cholesterol for the making of steroid hormones (progesterone, oestrogen, testosterone).
- Cholesterol is also present in the central nervous system, the body utilising more cholesterol in times of stress and tension to meet the challenges of increased nerve response.
- The body changes cholesterol into a substance known as 7-dehydrocholesterol. That is converted by sunlight into vitamin D. Vitamin D is required for the absorption of calcium and phosphorous from the intestines.
Good and Bad Cholesterol
After synthesis in the liver cholesterol is surrounded by a protein for transport through the bloodstream. This is called a lipo-protein and it circulates through the blood stream.
There are two types of lipo-protein.
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are responsible for carrying cholesterol to the artery wall.
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL) help to return cholesterol to the liver.
A low LDL cholesterol count and a high total cholesterol count is good news, it means most of total cholesterol is in the HDL form, removing it from the arteries.
The HDL is thus referred to as the ‘good cholesterol’ and the LDL cholesterol as ‘bad cholesterol’.
Excess cholesterol, in the LDL form, can deposit on damaged and inflamed arterial walls. These deposits (which also consist of saturated fats and calcium) are called arterial plaque. The presence of arterial deposits and thickening is called artherosclerosis.
What the tests mean
Cholesterol tests should report not only your overall cholesterol, but also how much of that cholesterol is in the HDL or LDL form. If you have high total cholesterol and much of it is in the form of LDL, your risk is high. If you have low total cholesterol and much of it is in the form of HDL, your risk is low.
Cholesterol less than 5.18
HDLs above 1.55
Cholesterol less than 5.18-6.7
HDLs above 0.9-1.55
Cholesterol above 6.7
HDLs less than 0.9
High cholesterol can be a marker for heart problems and the following are other considerations.
Medical risk factors
High blood cholesterol (low HDL, high LDL)
High blood fats (triglycerides)
High blood pressure
High lipoprotein (a)
Too much saturated fat
Too little fresh fruit and vegetables
Too much meat
Too much salt
Too much alcohol
Too few antioxidants Vits C & E, too few B Vitamins
By understanding and identifying all the risk factors and making appropriate diet and lifestyle changes one can substantially reduce the risk of heart disease.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations
Lowering your cholesterol levels via dietary means is not simply a matter of cutting out the cholesterol containing foods. Many studies show that diets containing moderate amounts of cholesterol, i.e. eggs, are not associated with increased cholesterol levels.
The main factors to consider include the introduction of foods that will help to:
- Alter the type of cholesterol i.e. increase the HDLs.
- Remove excess cholesterol by encouraging liver to convert cholesterol to bile salts for its removal.
- Fibre: found in fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. Oats and oat bran are particularly good. Can be used in muesli, porridge, breads, savoury recipes such as lentil loaf.
- Beetroot, carrot and parsnips are good. Apples are rich in pectin, which helps absorb fats.
- Brown rice and quinoa can be used in stirfries, salads, as an accompaniment. Rice and quinoa flakes can be used as porridge or in muesli.
- Other grains to use are barley, millet, buckwheat, rye.
- Fruits and Vegetables: have plenty of raw fruits and veg (salads) which are mineral- rich and good source of antioxidants. When cholesterol is oxidised the cells are damaged and this can lead to clogged arteries
- Pulses: consisting of beans, lentils and peas are a good source of complex carbohydrate, fibre and protein. Add to soup, salad and casseroles.
- Essential Fats: Omega 3 fatty acids, found in oily fish (sardines, mackerel. salmon, trout, herring) containing EPA and DHA can help lower triglycerides and raise HDLs. Omega 6 fatty acids are found in nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables. Use a small handful of nuts (brazils, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts) as snacks or in yoghurt. Use seeds (sunflower sesame, pumpkin, flaxseed) ground up and sprinkled on cereal /muesli, scatter whole seeds on salads.
- Cold pressed omega 3 and 6 oils (flaxseed, walnut, sunflower) can be drizzled on salads, and into smoothies.
- Saturated fat: found in animal foods such as red meat, dairy products, fried food. Frying damages HDL cholesterol. It is better to grill or bake or stirfry with olive oil or coconut oil. Eggs are good protein in moderation.
- Refined Carbohydrates: e.g. biscuits, cakes, white flour products, processed breakfast cereals. Eating these foods can imbalance blood sugar levels and excess sugar can be laid down as fat in ‘adipose tissue’. This can lead to weight gain.
- Processed Foods: tend to be laden with chemicals and can overload the liver.
- Stimulants: tea, coffee chocolate, tobacco can imbalance blood sugar, they deplete nutrients in the body, increase levels of fats in the blood and over stimulate the nervous system. Use alternative drinks such as Caro, Barley Cup, herbal teas, vegetable juices.
- Alcohol: red wine contains useful antioxidants. Limit your intake to one unit a day.
- If you are overweight aim to lose weight.
- Relax before you eat and chew your food well.
- Have regular exercise.
- A good multivitamin/mineral
- Vitamin C. The ability of vitamin C, at a daily level of 1g daily, to lower blood pressure, as well as cholesterol levels, has been demonstrated in many studies.
- Lysine: in conjunction with vitamin C can help to remove plaque (partly cholesterol) to clear the arteries.
- Omega 3 Fish Oil. EPA from fish oils has been found to have a positive effect on lowering blood triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, thinning the blood and raising HDL cholesterol.
- Soya Isoflavones and Lecithin. While the benefits of eating oily fish are well known, Soya reduces cholesterol and triglycerides and raises the beneficial HDLs. Soya beans are high in plant oestrogens, which have an antioxidant effect and phospholipids, namely lecithin, which help to escort unwanted cholesterol out of the arteries.
- Coconut oil. Used in cooking or as a spread. Naturally saturated, no trans fatty acids, non-hydrogenated.
- Garlic tablets. For thousands of years people have been aware of the beneficial properties of garlic, including its ability to reduce cholesterol levels and protect cholesterol from oxidation. Garlic has also been found to thin the blood, preventing the arteries clogging up. Most studies have found benefit from taking anything from one to three cloves daily. While this dietary addition is clearly beneficial, not everyone is keen on this idea!
- Cold milled flax seeds can help to lower total cholesterol and encourage regular bowel motion therefore reduce inflammation and toxicity within the digestive system.
- Olive Leaf. Oleuropein, a phenolic compound isolated from the olive leaf, has been shown to help protect blood fats from oxidation.
- Green tea catechins have been shown to prevent the build up of cholesterol in the blood.
- Chlorella, one- cell green algae, can help remove fats from the blood and repair damaged cells.
- AstaxanthinStudies at the University of Panama have found that astaxanthin could positively influence the ratio between the two types of cholesterol by increasing the HDL ‘good type’ and decreasing the LDL ‘bad type’.
- Ginger has always been known to be “anti-cholesterol” and a vasodilator.
- TMG and B Vitamins can lower homocysteine levels. Homocysteine damages arteries.
PLEASE NOTE: The recommendations made within this fact sheet are general guidelines and not meant to be prescriptive. If you are taking medication please consult your Doctor before making any dietary changes or supplementing with any of the above herbal/ nutrient recommendations.