Cholesterol: A Vital Substance in the Body
By Didi Pershouse, LAc, CCH,
When people come to their first visit with me as a health care provider, many of them are concerned about their cholesterol levels and are on low fat diets or statin drugs to correct the “problem.” I have a lot to say to them in response. A good part of my week is spent discussing, with one person at a time, how having high cholesterol can actually lengthen your life; and the importance of eating saturated fats especially for people who are trying to lose weight, and/or regulate blood sugar levels or hormonal levels. (I also spend a lot of time writing out recipes for hollandaise sauce, roast duck, and Mark’s Famous High-Fat Pudding).
Due to a huge misconception, many people are being put on cholesterol-lowering drugs and low-fat diets that have terrible side effects, while they are still eating high-sugar diets that are the real culprits of most of our diet-related health problems (See the New York Times Magazine article “Is Sugar Toxic?” from April 17, 2011). Advertising, food labels, textbooks, newspapers and magazines all perpetuate the erroneous line of reasoning that too much cholesterol is harmful, and therefore saturated fats should be avoided. Meanwhile, cholesterol-lowering drugs are the most “successful” drugs in the world making more profit than any other drugs in national and international sales.
The information out there is extremely confusing, not just to us as consumers, but even to the doctors who are trying to help us.
For starters, most cholesterol in the body is manufactured by the body itself, so all those labels saying “no cholesterol” are just a sales ploy. But secondly, why are we trying to lower our cholesterol, anyways?
In recent decades, study after study has shown that even though high cholesterol is somewhat associated with heart disease (only in men), people with high cholesterol live longer, and are less likely to die from all kinds of diseases. So, you might be slightly more likely to have a heart attack, but less likely to die. People with lower cholesterol are more likely to die from all kinds of diseases. Statistically, they are even a lot more likely to commit suicide or be murdered! An article in the Harvard Medical School Newsletter (2/23/07) quotes studies showing that men with the lowest cholesterol have a 35% higher death rate overall than men with the highest cholesterol. It also quotes studies showing that although high cholesterol levels tend to be associated with ischemic strokes, high cholesterol levels are actually protective against hemmorhagic strokes, so there is no benefit one way or the other in terms of strokes.
(Saturated fat, often blamed along with cholesterol for causing heart disease, also has also been let off the hook quietly, even though you’d never know it by reading product labels. See Mark Kutolowski’s article about the value of including saturated fats in the diet, and explained its role in the body. )
So what does cholesterol do?
Cholesterol is Needed in Every Cell of the Body
Cholesterol is an essential component of the membranes that surround every single cell in your body. These membranes regulate cell processes by the way they allow different substances to pass in and out. Cholesterol is the building block of hormones, including cortisol (which regulates stress in the body) and the male and female hormones testosterone, progesterone and estrogen.
Cholesterol is also necessary for the body to make bile salts, which are vital for digestion and assimilation of dietary fats. Mother’s milk is naturally rich in cholesterol and contains a special enzyme that helps the baby utilize this nutrient. Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs cause extreme birth defects when taken by pregnant women, demonstrating how important cholesterol is in the growth and development of children.
Cholesterol also is necessary for the body to make vitamin D. Vitamin
D is vital for the bones, nervous system, proper growth, mineral metabolism, muscle tone, insulin production, reproduction, and immune system function. Low rates of Vitamin D are associated with many disorders such as osteoporosis, depression, cancer and….heart disease! (See the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 3/04 isssue).
Cholesterol likely collects in arteries of people who have heart disease and arteriosclerosis (hardened arteries) because it is trying to help out with something else that is wrong in the arteries. More recently developed theories of heart disease tend to look at arterial plaque formation as part of a process of inflammation, caused by things like smoking, consistently high blood sugar, and infections (like Lyme Disease, chlamydia, and herpes simplex), as opposed to random clogging due to eating the wrong things. The plaque buildup (which contains cholesterol, among other things) is a sort of a patch—a temporary fix for arterial lesions until the body can solve the underlying problem creating the lesions. Therefore, blaming heart disease on cholesterol is a bit like blaming fires on fire trucks. “Gee, every time a fire happens, there are all these big red trucks there. If we could get rid of those trucks, then there would be no more fires!” It’s a nice idea, but not accurate.
Likewise, lowering the cholesterol of someone with severe heart disease may temporarily help unclog their arteries, but it isn’t addressing the conditions that created the problem to begin with. While I can go along with that as a temporary measure, lowering the cholesterol of someone who simply has high cholesterol with no symptoms of heart disease is absurd and very dangerous. The question is: what other problems will develop when you take away a vital substance?
Cholesterol is Necessary for our Brains
One reason the body needs cholesterol is that it is an essential part of the brain and nervous system. A full 25 percent of the body’s cholesterol is found in the brain. Why so much cholesterol? Without cholesterol, the brain can’t form synapses. Synapses are the gaps between nerves that allow one part of the brain to communicate with another part of the brain—as well as communication between the brain and the body. For example, serotonin receptors in the brain need cholesterol to function properly. Since serotonin is the body’s natural “feel-good” chemical, it’s not surprising that low cholesterol levels have been linked to aggressive and violent behavior, depression, and suicidal tendencies.
So, some of the side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) include:
- memory loss
- attention problems
- suicidal feelings
Our Nerves Need Cholesterol
Without enough cholesterol, people also develop problems with the nerves, such as:
- Facial weakness
- Difficulty walking
- Difficulty using the arms, hands, or feet
- Sensation changes such as pain, burning, tingling, numbness or decreased sensation
- Difficulty swallowing
- Speech impairment
- Loss of muscle function or feeling in the muscles
- Joint pain
- Hoarseness or changing of voice
The American Academy of Neurology reported a study from Denmark that said that people on cholesterol lowering drugs (“statins”) for two or more years had a 2,640% increase in the risk of definite idiopathic (caused by a drug) polyneuropathy (the symptoms I just listed).
When patients come to me complaining of muscle or nerve pain, injuries that don’t heal, memory problems, depression, suicidal thoughts, or digestive problems like heartburn, my first question is whether they are on a cholesterol-lowering drug. Very often they are, and usually they have been on them for over a year. I explain the role of cholesterol in the body, give them some reading to do, and tell them to talk to their doctor about the option of going off of the drug—especially since high cholesterol is associated with living longer! In every case, the symptoms have disappeared. I have seen people go from being nearly crippled and using walkers to being completely independent, and have seen people go from being suicidal to feeling normal. Many times the person’s spouse will thank me for “giving them their wife (or husband) back.”
One last fact: cholesterol readings go up and down in the body all the time, depending on what you eat, the temperature, the season, whether you are recovering from an illness, stress levels, and other factors. So when the doctor says your cholesterol went up, or went down, it doesn’t necessarily mean that much, because there are many factors that can influence a cholesterol test, and the levels are constantly in flux. If your cholesterol did go up, it could be that it is precisely because your body needed more of it to fix something that was wrong!
Recommended Reading on Fat and Cholesterol:
Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Mary Enig, PhD
Fat and Cholesterol are Good for You by Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD
Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
The Great Cholesterol Con by Anthony Colpo
The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith
Didi Pershouse is well known in the Upper Valley as the founder of The Center for Sustainable Medicine (formerly the Two Rivers Clinic) in Thetford Center, Vermont, where she has had a full-time practice in Acupuncture, Homeopathy and Health Counseling for the past 17 years. She teaches classes on peer counseling, and preventive medicine, and is a popular speaker at Transition Town Events. Her book on Sustainable Medicine will be published by Chelsea Green next year.