Too many people treat cholesterol as if it were some foreign substance in the body – like it’s an alien cancer invading our space. They think its only purpose is to slowly gunk up our arteries until they rupture and our heart stops beating.
But do you know the role cholesterol plays in our bodies? Kudos if you already do, but I’d wager that knowledge wasn’t more than some hazy memory from long ago.
Cholesterol isn’t a poison that you introduce into your body – it’s a vital substance that you need to help supplement what your liver already produces naturally.
In fact, not only do healthy sources of cholesterol not cause heart attacks, it actively prevents them!
First, let’s unmask cholesterol so it’s not quite a mystery and also why it’s essential to your health.
What Does Cholesterol Do For Us?
Provides Cell Structure
Your cell membranes are semi-permeable boundaries that only let things like oxygen and nutrients in and out with permission. Cholesterol maintains these membranes and provides our bodies with the overall structure and shape of being a human. Basically, we’d be amorphous blobs and our cells would break down (often that’s what happening in a heart attack).
Hormones affect most of the complex processes that happen in our bodies – from growth to metabolism, to fertility. Without cholesterol, we wouldn’t be able to reproduce, grow properly, experience puberty, balance minerals or blood sugar levels, or many other things. Basically, cholesterol helps our body communicate and coordinate all the complicated stuff that happens.
1 in 6 couples struggle with infertility, and that’s in no small part due to America’s misguided anti-cholesterol vendetta.
Preserves our Memory
This one’s fascinating to me, and took me by surprise when I first learned about it.
You see, in the brain, there are approximately 100 billion neurons that form over 100 trillion connections. These neurons are coated with myelin… which is comprised of around 20% cholesterol. Cholesterol is like the Justin Bieber of our bodies – it’s everywhere.
This myelin sheath greatly enhances the ability of the brain to transmit impulses across those 100 trillion connections. As people get older (and persist in low cholesterol diets), these myelin coverings begin to erode, causing memory problems and a slowing of mental faculties. (My nerdy, biology-major wife also told me it causes more pain, but we’re talking about memory here.)
But here’s where it gets crazy – diets high in cholesterol have actually been clinically proven to improve the memory of elderly people.
When I first heard that, I thought it was Earth-shattering news, as in, how could the people who discovered this not shout it from the rooftops? Isn’t that a massive scientific breakthrough, worthy of Nobel prizes and front page news??
And that reminded me why Erin and I run this blog. Sheesh.
Ok, now we’re getting where the rubber hits the road… trust me this all has a point.
Cholesterol functions as a handy repair mechanism dispatched to fix things all over the body. Recovering surgery patients have been recorded to have elevated cholesterol as the body repairs all the micro-tears and incisions that happen. People battling infections or diseases also have high cholesterol levels.
But here’s the bomb.
Cholesterol works to fix arterial tears in the body. At many of the highly-trafficked and vulnerable areas of arteries (for example a bend near the heart), white streaks of cholesterol can be found. In fact, these streaks are found in populations with no history of heart disease and can even be found in babies.
In other words, we essentially have proof that cholesterol is present in arteries for people with a 0% risk of heart attack. Cholesterol is there to help, not hurt.
To borrow a probably-too-common metaphor, blaming cholesterol is like blaming the firefighters for the burning building. Cholesterol is showing up to the scene of the accident to repair damage that has already been done, not causing it in the first place.
In our still infantile understanding of the human body, we’ve noticed that people who suffer heart attacks seem to have a build-up of cholesterol. We’ve taken an unscientific leap in logic and determined that correlation equals causation. People naively maintain that cholesterol must be the villain because it’s there trying to fix your unhealthy arteries.
Heaven forbid we actually tell people it’s because they’re 100 pounds overweight, eat totally improper diets, and haven’t exercised their heart in 30 plus years. It seems we’d rather take the “easy” way out and just take statins.
So, high levels of cholesterol indicate that the body’s firefighting team has been dispatched to fix something. If you have continual high levels of cholesterol, that means there’s something else persistently wrong that needs fixin’.
Why High Cholesterol Isn’t The Bad Guy
Our bodies naturally produce about 75% of the cholesterol we need, and the rest comes from our diet. When we eat too much cholesterol, our bodies simply produce a bit less to compensate. When we eat too little, our bodies produce more. That’s AWESOME!
The problems arise, however, when we rely on our body to consistently overproduce to meet cholesterol needs. It’s hard on your liver to continually overcompensate for a rabbit-food diet of spinach and kale, and that leads to other health issues.
And that leads us to a BIIIIG problem in our society.
Armed with what I’ve already mentioned here today, how do you think a doctor should respond when a patient is diagnosed with high cholesterol?
Think about it…
Shouldn’t it be “Hey, your cholesterol is high, that means it’s trying to fix or fight off something in your body, I wonder what that could be?”
But, that would only happen if doctors were taught more than a few weeks of nutrition in med school.
The crappy reality is that doctors load you up on statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs), and tell you to pop them like Pez. Forever.
Unfortunately, too many doctors prescribe pills that only treat symptoms and only mask the underlying problem. My wife has A LOT to say about that and her story about getting pregnant.
First of all, I’m not a doctor, so don’t get crazy and think I’m like your doctor or something. Cause I’m not. Just giving my opinion here. What comes next is NOT medical advice.
Statins are lovely, lovely pills. They are some of the greatest things known to man…
If you produce and sell them.
And that’s because statins are actually the most prescribed drug in America.
And that’s a problem, because they interfere with the necessary cholesterol that your liver produces.
You see, doctors notice a “problem” – a high level of cholesterol on a piece of paper they get from the lab. They have this drug that they know can reduce this number, so they prescribe it… based on the false assumption that more cholesterol = imminent death.
And statins do lower that number, no doubt about it. Statins unnaturally restrict your liver’s ability to produce cholesterol and reduces your liver’s ability to regulate proper cholesterol production.
I think you’re probably starting to see the problem (if you’ve actually read the whole post so far… you deserve a medal if you have).
Let me connect the dots:
1. You have something wrong in your body (infection, disease, recovering from surgery, rabies etc.).
2. Your body produces more cholesterol to help fix what’s wrong.
3. You see the doctor and he determines you have high cholesterol.
4. Said doctor assumes high cholesterol will kill you, and prescribes statins.
5. Statins suppress cholesterol formation in your body.
6. Your body, that has something that needs fixin’, no longer has enough of its front-line defense (cholesterol) to continue fighting the problem. The problem gets worse, as well as causing other side effects caused by restricted cholesterol.
Are you seeing the problem with statins?
The guy who invented statins, Akira Endo, stopped taking them even though he had elevated cholesterol levels. When asked why, Endo said “The indigo dyer wears white trousers.”
It turns out that indigo is toxic, and Endo realized that statins were too.
Remember above when I said that high cholesterol diets improve memories? Then it should come as no surprise that one of the most common side effects of statins is memory loss – they impair your brain’s ability to regenerate the myelin coverings. Seriously, how many stinkin’ drugs out there mask the issue at hand, causing serious side effects, which leads doctors to say “We have a drug for that too!”
Plus, recent studies have also shown that the statins do not lower the mortality rate for its users, and that people with low cholesterol levels have an overall higher mortality rate.
People with low cholesterol are more likely to
- Be diagnosed with HIV
- Contract respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases
- Die from heart attacks
- Die younger in general
- Have a suppressed immune system
Looks like our obsession with low cholesterol isn’t going to end well.
So What Clogs Our Arteries?
Ok, hopefully I’ve helped persuade you about cholesterol, and maybe to even stop taking statins if you have been (I recently convinced my mom to stop taking them… Woohoo!).
But I have a confession… I haven’t been completely honest. I’ve misled you slightly by saying that cholesterol doesn’t cause heart attacks.
This whole time, I’ve been assuming that we’re talking about naturally occurring forms of cholesterol in our diets (usually animal fats). These types of cholesterol are good for you, and are completely essential to our bodies. If you eat a bit too much, our body compensates, and you’re fine. The government even withdrew its longstanding warning about dietary cholesterol.
But some types of cholesterol absolutely do cause heart attacks.
What clogs our arteries is rancid or oxidized cholesterol. This is the only kind of cholesterol that actually finds its way into our arteries and begins to plug up the flow, which, well, causes heart attacks and stuff.
The most common source is from polyunsaturated fats – found most heavily in our diets from vegetable oils. They become rancid easily through exposure to light, heat, or oxygen. Before you even open the bottle, the vegetable oil is already rancid, contributing oxidized and heart-attack causing cholesterol. How nice (the wife lovingly refers to vegetable oil as “the oil of death” and you can’t argue with that one).
Another common source of oxidized cholesterol is low fat milk.
So What Should I Eat? Sticks of Butter? Bacon? Bacon Wrapped Sticks of Butter?
Here’s the deal – fats and cholesterol from the right sources are some of the healthiest and most nutritious foods nature has to offer (complete scoop on fats HERE). For example, Dr. Sally Fallon (from Weston A. Price) claims that eggs are nature’s most perfect food.
Here’s what to focus on, cholesterol-wise:
- Grass-fed beef and lamb
- Pastured pork, chickens, and eggs
- Raw milk and cheeses
- Pastured butter
- Check out all our Real Food rules HERE
So yes, if you have pastured bacon and butter, bon appétit!
Questions? Concerns? Jokes? Gossip? Share with us below!