When it comes to cholesterol there are many myths out there, and quite often doctors are just as confused as their patients. Many physicians still focus on topline numbers, and if that number is too high they prescribe statins. But the truth is lowering your cholesterol too much can put your health in jeopardy.
To help you get some perspective on the important role cholesterol plays in your body, here are nine must-known facts. Keep them in mind the next time your doctor raises the issue of reducing cholesterol.
1. Cholesterol is essential for good health. Cholesterol is a waxy substance called a “sterol” that’s produced by the liver. Your body needs cholesterol to manufacture vitamin D, sex hormones (such as progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen), stress hormones, and the bile salts needed for digesting and absorbing fats. Plus, it’s a major building block of your cells.
2. Your body knows how much cholesterol you need. The old way of thinking is that you want to limit yourself to 300 mg of dietary cholesterol daily. But the truth is your body regulates cholesterol production. When you eat more, your body makes less. And if you eat less, your body makes more. On average, our bodies manufacture 85% of our cholesterol and the rest comes from our diets.
3. Your topline number doesn’t tell the whole story. Many doctors think that cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease since it can build up in the arteries and inhibit blood flow to the heart. Yet, half of all heart attacks occur in people with so-called "normal" cholesterol levels. What you want to pay attention to is your triglyceride-to-HDL ratio, which is a much stronger predictor of cardiovascular events. Ideally, you want no more than a two-to-one ratio of triglycerides to HDL cholesterol.
4. Cholesterol numbers aren't static. You can have different levels of cholesterol at different times of the day. Plus, levels vary by season, going up in the winter and down in the summer.
5. Arterial inflammation is the real cause of heart disease. The real culprit in heart disease isn’t cholesterol, but inflammation. Inflammation is fueled by sugar. So instead of ridding your diet of cholesterol-rich foods like eggs and shrimp, focus on limiting (or better yet eliminating) sugar, white flour, and other simple carbohydrates.
6. Cholesterol soars after surgery. It also increases when you have an infection, mental stress, or have suffered a heart attack. The reason is that cholesterol is a healing agent. Your body needs it to manufacture new cells, and it’s produced whenever healing is required. In fact, having a low cholesterol level can hurt your immunity and make you more prone to illness.
7. LDL cholesterol helps to repair blood vessels. The damaging agents we are exposed to—toxic chemicals, pathogens, free radicals, and inflammatory substances—wind up in our bloodstream and damage the razor-thin lining of our blood vessels. When this happens, the liver sends LDL cholesterol to the site to make repairs. As the healing process concludes, the spent LDL particles are carried back to the liver by HDL cholesterol and removed from the body.
8. The brain is particularly rich in cholesterol. In fact, it accounts for about a quarter of all the cholesterol we have. About 20 percent of the fatty myelin sheath that coats every nerve cell and fiber is made of cholesterol, and neuron function depends on it. So, it’s not surprising that there’s a strong connection between cholesterol and mental function, and low levels are linked to weak cognitive performance. That’s one reason why driving cholesterol too low with statin drugs can cause you to feel foggy-headed, and in extreme cases can lead to temporary amnesia.
9. The risks of high cholesterol don’t come from family history. If you have high cholesterol and it runs in your family, yet your family members are living into their eighties and nineties, don’t worry about it. However, if you have a family of heart disease and your cholesterol is high, then you want to investigate your other heart disease risk factors, such as C-reactive protein (inflammation), fibrinogen, Lp(a), and homocysteine. If your cholesterol keeps company with these other risk factors, I call it “toxic blood syndrome.” If that’s the case for you, you need to look at your cholesterol to see how it’s fractionated, and if you have high levels of inflammatory cholesterol you’ll want to take steps to lower it.