You are taking good care of your heart health. That’s great. You are avoiding saturated fats and keeping your blood cholesterol levels low. You are happy and so is everyone else in the family — because, this is the key to good health and preventing heart disease. If you are a vegetarian eating low-fat food and keeping dairy products at a distance, you are doing the best thing possible. Or, you don’t eat more than a few eggs, and you’ve kept red meat off your menu. Or, if you are taking prescription cholesterol-lowering drugs, you’d sure be feeling on top of the world. Put simply, you are convinced that you’re taking appropriate care of your heart health.
You may be wrong. Because, you would be amazed to learn that your key factors, or pointers, to good heart health are ‘flawed’ beliefs.
A growing number of researchers are of the view today that the cholesterol-heart disease premise is more than questionable. In other words, the idea that high cholesterol is a fundamental risk factor for heart disease may be more than ‘orchestrated’ hard-sell.
Their argument — there is no ‘rock-hard’ evidence that high cholesterol alone plays a role in heart disease, forget about the long history of the ‘cholesterol danger’ hypothesis. The fact is — saturated fats and cholesterol are, in point of fact, essential for good health and maintaining strong immune defence. However, while it is agreed that a consistently high level of low-density lipoproteins [LDL], or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood, is suggestive of an underlying health problem, what needs to be emphasised is that one should always address the ‘root cause’ of any given, or not given, illness, instead of keeping one’s blood cholesterol levels awfully low.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance produced in the liver and the intestinal wall; it is synthesised in every cell, except nerve tissue. The body produces cholesterol on an ‘as-needed-basis.’ It is noteworthy that 85 per cent of cholesterol is produced by the body, while only 15 per cent is derived from food. It’d be all the more surprising to know that newer studies have evidenced that cholesterol derived from food has no effect on the level of blood cholesterol in the body. Our body is a smart apparatus — it knows its physiology, or functional capabilities, better than state-of-the-art drugs, or technology. In other words, the body has an extremely efficient mechanism, in place, which directs, produces and regulates cholesterol levels. When we eat excess cholesterol foods, for instance, the body produces less; when we eat less cholesterol, the body produces ‘more,’ accordingly. In other words, it compensates for any deficit, or surfeit.
To cut a long story short, cholesterol is not as bad as it is being made out to be — it is fundamental to regulate many essential functions. Cholesterol is vital for the production of hormones — right from testosterone and progesterone to aldosterone. Hormones play a key role in metabolism, muscle, bone, sexual function, emotional responses and also behaviour. Cholesterol also regulates the exchange of nutrients and waste products. It helps in the development of the brain and the nervous system; it also acts as a ‘conduit’ for nerve impulses.
Cholesterol promotes the digestion of foods. Without it, complex fats and fat-soluble vitamins [A, D, E, and K] cannot be absorbed. Cholesterol also plays an essential role in the manufacture of the adrenal, sex and pituitary hormones. It is a key substance in the skin, which gets converted to vitamin D, by sunlight. This is not all. Cholesterol creates a barrier, preventing water and other fluids from entering the body through the skin.
Cholesterol levels in the blood are not constant; it is dynamic, or subject to fluctuation, like your blood pressure and other bodily functions. It varies at different times of the day and also seasons. One tends to have higher levels of cholesterol in winter than in summer. Cholesterol also rises alarmingly after surgical and dental procedures. It, of course, shoots up during stress; it, likewise, reduces when you are relaxed, or cheerful. What triggers high cholesterol levels is job stress, or workplace pressures, lack of exercise, depression, anxiety, suppressed angst, chronic pain, inflammation, acid stomach and sleeplessness, among a host of other factors.
Cholesterol is a healing ‘substance,’ no less. When the body has some repair job to be done, it produces cholesterol and dispatches it to the location where it is needed. On the other hand, low cholesterol levels compromise our immune defence — when this happens, one is vulnerable to infections. Research suggests that a diet rich in cholesterol enhances our ability to recover from infections more quickly. However, one needs to be discreet — not go overboard. May be, our grandma was right. She always emphasised on moderation in everything we do — including moderation. Modern medicine acquiesces to the tenet, no less.
We are all exposed to pollutants, chemicals, viruses, bacteria and free radicals on a daily basis. When these dangerous elements reach our bloodstream, the liver receives a short ‘text’ message to dispatch ‘bad’ cholesterol to the location of harm. Your body, likewise, uses cholesterol to repair damaged artery walls. This may not be as simple as it appears to be, because if ‘that’ particular cholesterol is oxidised, your body still believes the artery wall is damaged — as a result, it rushes more cholesterol to ‘fix’ the glitch. The inflammatory process that ‘jump-starts’ to refurbish artery damage merely hastens the expansion of the wall, contributing to the sequential response of cholesterol build up, causing additional oxidation.
On the other hand, when healing takes place, the ‘bad’ cholesterol returns to the liver in the form of high-density lipoproteins [HDL], or ‘good’ cholesterol. Nevertheless, it needs to be emphasised that, in chronic disease or illness, our blood cholesterol tends to remain persistently high. It is also evidenced that when people consume far too much of cholesterol-rich foods, their body may not be able to cope with the elimination process. This can, of course, occur when our liver is not functioning at its optimal level, or is not healthy. Yet, such a premise is an exception, not a rule.
Picture this — people who consume 4-5 servings of vegetables and fruits, which are packed with free radical annihilating antioxidants, have healthy hearts, because their diet does not permit oxidised cholesterol to cause damage. Yet, eating veggies is no panacea. One should eat according to one’s nutritional requirements — all the more better if the food source is organic. At the other end of the spectrum, conventional meat and other processed food sources are full of chemicals, pesticides, omega-6 fatty acids, antibiotics and hormones — they are to blame for oxidised cholesterol.
In like manner, low glutathione levels are considered risk factors for heart disease. Glutathione is a tiny molecule which resides in almost every cell of the body. Too little glutathione impacts the body from ‘flushing’ out harmful cholesterol that damages the arteries. In addition, high homocysteine levels are deleterious for artery walls. Homocysteine is a building block of protein manufactured in the body from the essential amino acid, methionine. Low levels of vitamin-B ‘activate’ homocysteine to reach perilous levels. There are also other hazards, such as stale, unsaturated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which trigger inflammatory changes leading to a free radical glut.
There is overpowering evidence that heart disease is a prospective outcome of lifestyle choices that lead to inflammation. Gone are the days when this index was blamed on excess fat accrual — the whole idea is now increasingly considered as a disease process typified by inflammation and improper wound healing of the blood vessels. Yet, like everything else, each of us is different — we respond or react to stressors and illnesses differently, albeit the problem may be the same by name. This is because our individual physiology or biochemistry permits for a broad array of cholesterol levels. This is also best deciphered with relative levels of ‘good’ cholesterol [HDL] and ‘bad’ cholesterol [LDL] rather than your total cholesterol.
Researchers suggest that an extremely high level of ‘bad’ [LDL] cholesterol may possibly indicate that your body is not ‘easing’ cholesterol from your blood effectively, and any inefficiency, aside from heart disease that may be present with it, is most likely caused by nutritive imbalance and an indolent lifestyle. Whatever the argument, one thing is obvious. Your ‘good’ cholesterol [HDL] should ideally be high and your ‘bad’ cholesterol [LDL] should be relatively low to each other, although a recent study has found that people with low levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol may have a high risk of heart disease, no less.
This is also reason why a fast-emerging school of medical thought advocates, that, instead of ‘stifling’ one’s cholesterol levels with superfluous bravado, one should aim at treating the underlying trigger — the likely cause of the cholesterol ‘upsurge’ — to restore optimal health and well-being.