Cholesterol, though much-maligned in recent years, is actually beneficial and in fact essential to a healthy body! With all the talk about bad cholesterol and about the need to lower our blood cholesterol levels, you might find that sentence surprising. If you think about it, though, it makes sense. Why would our bodies naturally make something that was bad for us?
Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts meant to provide the real facts on fats.
We think of cholesterol as a fat, but in reality it is an alcohol that acts like a fat. Fats are triglycerides, meaning they are 3 chains of carbon atoms. Cholesterol, is made up of several rings of carbon atoms. So they don’t even look similar.
Cholesterol is Essential!
The reality is that cholesterol is essential for good health! Look at some facts:
- Cholesterol is the precursor to all of the sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and DHEA.
- Over 50% of the dry weight of the cerebral cortex is comprised of cholesterol. In fact, some suggest that those with higher blood cholesterol are capable of faster mental processing!
- We need cholesterol to make vitamin D – necessary for calcium and phosphorous metabolism. Vitamin D also boosts immunity.
- The bile acids, necessary for proper fat digestion and absorption, are derived from cholesterol.
- Cholesterol is the precursor to the adrenal corticosteroid hormones. These are necessary for kidney function and water balance. They also suppress inflammation as well as preparing us for fight or flight mode.
- Serotonin receptors in the brain require cholesterol for proper function.
- Cholesterol is needed to maintain the health of all of our skin. Skin is sometimes referred to as our body’s largest organ. When you think of skin you need to think about all the areas exposed to the outside world; including the respiratory system, digestive system, and parts of the reproductive system.
Now that you know what cholesterol does for us, what happens when cholesterol levels are low? Sadly, low cholesterol levels are associated with an increase in cancer risk. Low cholesterol is also associated with depression, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, violence, and suicide!
Confused yet? It really boggles my mind how we got to where we are today. Can there be issues with cholesterol? Perhaps. Cholesterol can wind up in arteries and, if oxidized, lead to a buildup of plaque. Plaque is a buildup of oxidized cholesterol molecules, fatty acids, calcium, and fibrous connective tissue.
The reality is that cholesterol consumption becomes a problem only when the diet is lacking in essential fatty acids, lacking in fiber, and high in either calories or processed foods! So, it all goes back to eating a good diet.
What’s a better measure that’s a predictor for heart disease risk? Triglyceride levels. These are typically measured at the same time as cholesterol. Triglyceride levels in the blood are influenced by excess glucose and excess sugars. So over-consumption of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol can raise triglyceride levels.
It’s my belief that we would all be healthier if we ate like we did in the days before manufacturing of food became popular. Pre-World War II, maybe? Or even pre-World War I. No, you don’t have to grow your own food, just eat food closer to its natural state.
Having said all of this, and I know it to be true, I personally find it hard to assimilate all of this information. For most of my life I’ve been told certain things about foods and fats and cholesterol. And now there’s mounting evidence that things aren’t quite what we think. Where do we go from here?
I don’t have that answer. The notion that fats – especially saturated fats – and cholesterol are bad for us and should be shunned took sixty (60!) years to get into our culture. It’s not going to turn around over night. Especially when there’s $30 billion or more annual industry built around statin drugs – the drugs that lower cholesterol levels.
What are your thoughts on this?