Okay, I’m interested to investigate this because I don’t know much about it myself, apart from the fact that I went to the doctor some time ago, with someone I know and love, for a test. She received her results from her blood test that showed she had higher than normal LDL cholesterol levels.
I’m also interested in nutrition and health so I’m looking at this topic from that angle. Does the food we eat affect our cholesterol levels?
I will endeavour to explain cholesterol in a simple way that even I can understand. If you’re a medical professional reading this please forgive me for oversimplifying the hugely complex processes within our bodies.
I hope I can do justice to this topic and make it as accurate as possible.
What does the term heart disease actually mean?
Atherosclerosis is the technical term for what results in heart disease. Cholesterol filled constructions, that we call plaque, gather along the walls of the arteries and cause an obstruction to blood flow.
The deposited plaque gets larger and denser which in turn causes inflammation of cells and various types of tissue damage.
In time these plaque constructions can rupture causing blood clots in the artery. A blood clot can block the flow of blood to the heart which deprives the heart of oxygen. This causes part of the heart muscle to die and is what we call a heart attack. Worldwide, this disease is the most common cause of death1.
So trying to understand how this disease is caused becomes extremely important as we may be able to prevent it in ourselves.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a sterol made by the animal kingdom, as opposed to a phytosterol made by the plant kingdom. It is a molecule made up of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.
We have been told that there is good and bad cholesterol. The truth is cholesterol is essential “for life” and therefore good.
The body uses cholesterol for hormone production – the steroid hormones like testosterone and oestrogen; it helps make Vitamin D, it’s used in the wall structure of nearly every cell. The brain is rich in cholesterol and accounts for about a quarter of all the cholesterol in our bodies2. Without cholesterol our cells would not operate properly.
Where Do we Get Cholesterol From?
About 85% of the total cholesterol in our bodies is actually manufactured within nearly every cell of our bodies. Only 15% is obtained from the food we eat.
You can visualise this if you imagine a swimming pool being filled from two sources; a fireman’s hose and a small garden hose gently streaming into the pool. Our bodies mainly comprise cholesterol that we have synthesized ourselves (fireman’s hose) and not so much the cholesterol we have consumed in our daily food (garden hose).
Heart Disease only Happens if Cholesterol Finds its Way into the Artery Wall
According to Peter Attia MD, “Heart disease does not happen without cholesterol finding its way into the artery wall.”3 You could have a look at this YouTube clip4 if you want much more in-depth information.
What Gets Cholesterols into the Artery wall?
Dr Attia describes how this happens. If we liken the veins and arteries to a canal system within the body then there are boats plying their way up and down the river delivering and collecting cargo at various docks along the way.
When we talk about cholesterol (LDL or HDL) relating to heart disease we’re not really talking about cholesterol itself. We’re talking about the boats, Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) and High Density Lipoproteins (HDL). Cholesterol is the cargo. The cargo needs a boat to take it to the correct docking point along the river. The boat is the lipoprotein.
Is Having a Lot of Cholesterol in Your Bloodstream a Bad Thing? According to the site Authority Nutrition “Having a lot of cholesterol in your bloodstream is NOT a bad thing5, unless this cholesterol is being carried around in the wrong lipoproteins (ie. the wrong boats).
Heart disease is not a cholesterol derived disease; it is driven by the lipoproteins that carry the cholesterol around. Current evidence shows that cholesterol is not the enemy.”
1. Most common cause of death http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm
2. The Great Cholesterol Myth, J. Bowden Ph.D, S. Sinatra M.D., Fair winds Press, 2012
3. What is cholesterol? http://eatingacademy.com/nutrition/the-straight-dope-on-cholesterol-part-i
4. Dr Peter Attia YouTube clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAWdHYSrh7M
5. Authority Nutrition http://authoritynutrition.com/diet-cholesterol-and-lipoproteins-explained/