Cholesterol is one of those topics that most people are familiar with; and as we age, many of us become concerned about our levels. In fact, high cholesterol levels are often the driver that encourages people to reach out for nutrition advice.
However, there is still a lot of confusion about cholesterol. What is it exactly? Why do we need it? Does what I eat make a difference? How can I reduce it naturally?
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is an actual molecule, but what it is bound to while it’s floating through your blood is what’s more important than just how much of it there is overall. In fact, depending on what it’s combined with can have opposite effects on your arteries and heart. Yes, opposite!
Cholesterol is just one component of a compound that floats around your blood. These compounds contain cholesterol as well as fats and special proteins called “lipoproteins”.
They’re grouped into two main categories:
- HDL: High-Density Lipoprotein (AKA “good” cholesterol) that “cleans up” some of those infamous “arterial plaques” and transports cholesterol back to the liver.
- LDL: Low-Density Lipoprotein (AKA “bad” cholesterol) that transports cholesterol from the liver (and is the kind found to accumulate in arteries and become easily oxidized hence their “badness”).
And yes, it’s even more complicated than this. Each of these categories is further broken down into subcategories which can also be measured in a blood test. In fact, it is really the small, dense LDL (sdLDL) that we need to be concerned with.
So cholesterol has very different effects on your body depending on which other molecules it’s bound to in your blood and what form it takes.
Why do we need cholesterol?
Cholesterol is absolutely necessary for your body to produce critical things like vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, your sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone), as well as bile, to help you absorb dietary fats. Not to mention that it’s incorporated into the membranes of your cells.
Talk about an important molecule!
The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA “total cholesterol”) isn’t nearly as important as how much of each kind you have in your blood.
While too much LDL cholesterol as compared with HDL (the LDL:HDL ratio) may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease it is not the only thing to consider for your health.
Are lower cholesterol levels better?
As with almost everything in health and wellness, there’s a balance that needs to be maintained. People with too-low levels of cholesterol have increased risk of death from other non-heart-related issues like certain types of cancers, as well as suicide.
So lower cholesterol isn’t necessarily better.
Does eating cholesterol-containing foods impact my levels?
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. It’s actually not from the cholesterol you eat. Why do you think cholesterol medications block an enzyme (HMG Co-A reductase) in your liver? Because that’s where it’s made!
What you eat still can affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. After a cholesterol-rich meal, your liver doesn’t need to make as much.
How can I lower cholesterol naturally?
First of all, don’t start or stop any medications without talking with your doctor.
While drugs can certainly lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol they don’t seem to be able to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol all that well.
One of the most impactful ways to lower your cholesterol with diet is to eat lots of fruits and veggies. I mean lots… say up to 10 servings a day. Every day.
Other factors that help are exercising, losing weight, stopping smoking, and eating better quality fats. Yes, I said eat more fat! That means fatty fish, avocados, and olive oil. Ditch those over-processed hydrogenated “trans” fats.
The science of cholesterol and heart health is complicated and we’re learning more every day. You may not need to be as afraid of it as you are. And there is a lot you can do from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective to improve your cholesterol level.