Cholesterol is a natural substance manufactured by the body. It is an essential material with so many important functions but excessive levels are seen as a pre-cursor to conditions like heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis. When resolving cholesterol-related health conditions, it is important to understand that cholesterol is something that the body naturally produces, which plays an essential role in health and wellbeing.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a hard waxy material which our bodies produce. It is also found in many animal foods such as meat, whole milk and egg yolks.
Functions of Cholesterol
In the body, cholesterol is made by the liver and performs many vital functions:
- It is the precursor to the sex hormones (oestrogen and testosterone) and adrenal hormones (cortisol).
- It is a precursor to vitamin D synthesis
- It is a constituent of bile.
- It is a constituent of oil gland secretions, which protect the skin.
- It is an important modifier of cell membrane structure. Cell membranes are composed of lipids. Saturated fats make membranes stiffer whilst unsaturated fats make them more flexible. Cholesterol is therefore used to balance the day-to-day variations within our cell membranes.
- Cholesterol is also used to coat tissues to protect them from damage. For example, when the body is dehydrated and cells are losing precious water, the body responds to this water loss by coating the cell membrane with cholesterol. This patch up measure is a natural inbuilt survival response. Another example of this survival response is the use of cholesterol to coat & protect blood vessels being damaged from chemical imbalances such as excess acidity in the blood.
If cholesterol has many important functions, why then does it have such a bad reputation?
The main reason is that from scientific observation, cholesterol amongst other things forms part of arterial plaque. This plaque if allowed to build up over time clogs up and stiffens the arteries causing cardiovascular diseases. From this observation, the mainstream conclusion is that if blood cholesterol levels are elevated there is an increased danger of cardiovascular disorders like arteriosclerosis, strokes and heart attacks.
However the underlying imbalance which is causing the body to overproduce cholesterol needs to be addressed to fully resolve issues of excess cholesterol. If these underlying imbalances are not corrected then the excess accumulation of cholesterol occurs. Eventually blood vessels become clogged up and vital substances are prevented from travelling across the cell membranes.
Why does cholesterol production become imbalanced?
Consuming foods which are naturally high in cholesterol like eggs has little effect on blood cholesterol. If dietary cholesterol is decreased, the body continues to manufacture cholesterol for its needs.
Diet is however a significant factor which can influence cholesterol levels. If the diet is high in challenging foods and drinks then the body will find it hard to digest, detoxify and eliminate these foods. Overtime the sensitive balance of body chemistry becomes affected and factors like hydration and pH become imbalanced. The body responds to this imbalance by increasing cholesterol levels which is used to protect body tissues from excessive damage from dehydration, acidity, inflammation and so on.
A challenging diet often includes:
- Low water intake
- Low in alkaline-forming foods like vegetables and fruits
- Damaged fats: trans fats, hydrogenated fats, partially hydrogenated fats found in many processed foods
- High temperature cooking (frying, roasting etc) with heat sensitive unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats oxidize in high cooking temperatures and generate free radicals which can disrupt cell membranes.
- Excess chemicals and preservatives which are found in many processed foods
- Excess refined carbohydrates and sugar which are found in many processed foods
- Excess acid-forming foods/drinks like red meat, refined carbohydrates.
- Table salt, which disrupts fluid balance
- Stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, which contribute to dehydration.
These foods alter body chemistry and promote acidity and dehydration if eaten as a regular part of the daily diet. The body responds to this by producing more cholesterol to protect tissues from becoming excessively damaged from acidity and dehydration.
Prolonged stress is also another important factor which elevates cholesterol levels. Stress may be experienced as physical, mental or emotional but the effect within the body is the same. Stress stimulates the fight and flight response which is a protection mechanism within the body to deal with danger.
The flight and fight response triggers hormonal changes which in turn alter electrolyte, hydration and blood sugar levels resulting in increased blood pressure and heart rate, thicker blood, increased blood sugar and so on. These changes are all designed to help the body deal with the perceived danger. However this response is meant to be short-term and if prolonged then this also causes dehydration.
The body responds to this stress-related dehydration by triggering further cholesterol production which will be used to coat cell membranes in the areas of dehydration to prevent excessive water loss. Overtime the excess cholesterol prevents the normal movement of wastes, nutrients etc to and from these cells resulting in imbalanced cellular functioning.
If the body is internally damaged by the diet, stress, an unhealthy lifestyle or environment then the body will protect any damaged areas by covering the damage with cholesterol.
Cholesterol protects body tissues from damage. If the source of damage is not corrected then excess cholesterol becomes a problem and can lead to a danger of developing cardiovascular disorders.
The best course of action is to limit the factors which cause this type of damage within the body, which will then naturally result in the lowering of abnormal levels of cholesterol within the body.
Natural Ways to Reduce Abnormal Cholesterol Levels
- Drink sufficient water for hydration needs (more if you are physically active). Dehydration results in the cells being coated with cholesterol to prevent excessive water loss.
- Include food/drinks which contain high levels of water such as fruits, vegetables, non-diuretic herbal teas and slow-cooked grains prepared using large quantities of water.
- Eat foods containing fibre, which are found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The fibre will help to soak up excess cholesterol, which can then be carried out of the body via the faeces.
- Make sure there are sufficient essential fatty acids in the diet, so that essential regulatory processing within the cells can occur. If deficiencies occur then the body has no choice but to break down cell membranes which are rich in essential fatty acids to extract the necessary materials, resulting in damage which is patched up by cholesterol.
- Use heat stable saturated fats in moderation when cooking like clarified butter (ghee), coconut oil or palm oil.
- Eat lots of fresh vegetables including green leafy vegetables with main meals. The minerals within the vegetables will help to neutralise acidity from acid-forming foods like proteins (meat, fish, eggs, pulses) and grains (wheat, oats, rice etc)
- Avoid white sugar, white flour, table salt, hydrogenated fats and trans fats. They all contribute to increasing cholesterol.
- Limit the use of processed foods as they contain damaging foods like white sugar, table salt, white flour, trans fats, chemicals and preservatives. Aim to replace processed foods with freshly prepared food using unprocessed ingredients.
- Avoid foods/drinks which promote dehydration such as alcohol, caffeine, high sugar drinks, salt and salty foods.
- Avoid using microwaves for cooking as they damage the molecular structure of foods and will be difficult to digest and process, resulting in cellular toxicity.
- Take regular daily exercise which does not overly stress the body (example 30 minutes daily walk). Exercise has many beneficial effects such as producing endorphins (feel good hormones), lowering blood fats/sugars and so on.
- Keep the emotions balanced. For example: If angry, frustrated etc then don't bottle it up or explode but find ways of releasing these emotions. Find creative activities which help to release stress such as painting, singing, yoga, meditation and so on.
- Smoking direct or indirect will cause cholesterol levels to rise. The nicotine damages internal tissues and will eventually be coated with cholesterol to prevent further damage. Therefore aim to stop smoking.
- Reduce alcohol as it dehydrates the body.