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Is Cholesterol a Myth?
Cholesterol can be hard to understand. This article is to attempt to simplify what cholesterol is and to outline how your decisions can impact your cholesterol levels. If you have watched some of those documentaries or shows that mentioned that cholesterol is a myth, you may be left feeling confused. Is cholesterol real? If it's a myth, why make a big deal about it? If it's real, how can it be prevented? Right now, you probably think that in the cholesterol world, eggs are the Devil and that the only way to avoid that cholesterol build-up is to stop eating eggs and eat more of those Honey Nut Cheerios. But is this necessarily true? Separating lie from fiction can be tricky, and this article may help shed some light on cholesterol, using scientific articles and research. Cholesterol is interesting. Cholesterol numbers discovered at the doctor's office is usually used as a way to shame the patient into thinking that their lifestyle choices are extremely bad. Most people have normal cholesterol.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is essentially a fat that is made by the liver. It is found in a person's blood plasma and tissues. (If you have ever donated plasma after eating very high-fat meals, you may have noticed that the process takes a lot longer and that the plasma is thicker and oddly colored). Cholesterol is also known as an 'animal sterol". A person needs cholesterol for their body to function properly. Cholesterol helps in the creation of hormones (like cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone) within the body, and it is a necessary part of a body's cell walls. The problem with cholesterol is that 'too much' of it may increase one's risk of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is a scientific term for heart disease. Cholesterol does not dissolve in water, or in blood. Because of this, the body has to have a unique way of transporting it. The liver houses cholesterol in tiny packets. These packets also have proteins and other kinds of fats (another word for fats is lipids). These tiny packets are called "lipoproteins". There's two different kinds. THere are LDL and HDL. LDL means 'low-density lipoprotein,' and HDL is (you guessed it) 'high-density lipoproteins.' LDL is usually called 'bad' cholesterol, and HDL is called 'the good one.' The job of the "bad" LDL is to transport cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the human. The job of the HDL (or the good one) is to transport cholesterol back to the liver from the person's tissues and organs.
Cholesterol, Arterial Tears and Inflammation
Scientists used to believe that excess cholesterol built up on the walls of the blood vessels. This is not true. A person's age and lifestyle determine the tiny inflammations that build up in the walls of their blood vessels. The small inflammations within a person's blood vessels can develop, over time, in various ways. People that have high LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) have 'scavenger cells' (also known as phagocytes) that can eat more cholesterol bits, Pac-Man style. This, in turn, causes the cholesterol to stick to the inflamed blood vessel walls. The small inflammations in the blood vessels can make the blood vessel quite weak. The blood vessel can then easily tear. When blood touches the cholesterol deposits, this may form a blood clot, which is dangerous. A person's body tries to heal its tears, and this happens not just with scabs after we fall off a bike, but it happens within the body as it tries to seal the tear within the blood vessel itself. If the blood clot formed is big, it can be a huge problem. This may cause a stroke or heart attack because the clot will clog up the blood vessel, preventing blood from going through. Usually, a person has tiny blood clots that form. The clots fix the tear in the blood vessel and float along and usually do not cause harm. When the tear heals within the blood vessel, it may create a scar. The blood vessel may then experience 'calcification.' this is when the blood vessel becomes more narrow than normal, but isn't completely blocked. This creates the wall of the blood vessel to become stiff and thick. This, in turn, is what we know as arteriosclerosis. You may have heard the term arteriosclerosis. They are used interchangeably within the medical world.
What is Arteriosclerosis
Arteriosclerosis was what people used to believe was the plaque deposits building up in the artery walls, but as we have learned, this is not necessarily true. Arteriosclerosis is the stiffening and thickening of the artery walls due to the tears caused by inflammation and the healing process as the body tried to seal the artery wound. This small inflammation can happen to any random artery in a person's body. They can cause more harm is they form in large arteries that transport human blood to the heart and the brain. If a person has blood vessels that are narrow, and that affects the heart, they may experience check pain (also known as angina) when they are putting their body through a tremendous physical effort. The inflammations that affect heart vessels are dangerous because, again, they will block the blood flow to the heart, and in turn, to the heart muscle, which then has the domino effect of creating a heart attack situation. When a blood vessel to the brain is blocked in this manner, it's called a stroke.
What's the Link Between Cholesterol and Genetics?
There is such a thing as familial hypercholesterolemia (also known as familial hypercholesterolemia) This is when the body makes high levels of LDL cholesterol. This is thought to be caused due to a mutation in a certain gene. "Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) refers to hypercholesterolemia resulting from a heterozygous pathogenic variant in one of several genes." (Youngblom, 2014) The best way to find out if you have this is by getting genetically tested, although an excellent way to know is to see if you are developing xanthomas, xanthelasmas, and corneal arcus. A xanthoma is a strange, yellow patch on the skin that is caused by the accumulation of lipids. These can be found mostly on hands, feet, and elbows. Xanthelasmas is a yellow plaque that happens around the eyes, mainly on the eyelid. Corneal arcus is a white, grey, or blue ring that forms around the eye's iris. To understand this more easily, the protein that clear's your body's blood of LDL (the bad cholesterol) isn't doing its job very well due to genetics. Are the LDL and HDL numbers Important? Yes, they are good to know, but it's also important to know that sometimes there is not much you can do about the number. Yes, high LDL levels (bad cholesterol) and low HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) are factors that can lead to heart disease. The numbers can help you get a good idea about what risk you're looking at
How Do Prescription Medications Help Cholesterol?
At this time, it's pretty clear that pharmaceutical companies are continually trying to sell you something you may or may not need to make a pretty penny. We are told that normal cholesterol levels are under 200 MG/DL, but the number varies wildly from 105 mg/dl to 343 mg/dl in individuals who are otherwise extremely healthy. This range of cholesterol is seen in people who also have heart disease. In short, people with heart disease have the same cholesterol numbers as those individuals who are healthy and without heart disease.
So are pharmaceutical cholesterol-lowering medications really working? Right now, the doctor immediately reaches for a kind of medicine to control medication called 'statins.' Let 's use the medication Mevacor as an example. Mevacor is the brand name, the expensive name. Lovastatin is the generic name or the name that is used to sell the medication at a lower price. The side effects are a headache, muscle pain, joint and back pain, stomach pain, gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, and insomnia. I was curious to discover this: How does Lovastatin work? How exactly is it helping people become 'healthier,' and how exactly is it impacting cholesterol, especially with this long list of side effects? Supposedly lovastatin works by lessening the cholesterol production in the body, therefore, lessening the amount that may build up on the wall arteries. This is already a "fail," as it's assuming that cholesterol is building upon cell walls of arteries, along with fats, therefore decreasing blood flow.
How to Control Cholesterol Without Prescription Medication
Stop smoking, if you do. Start performing an exercise, even if it's just walking for 30 minutes a day. Make sure your heart rate raises a bit by investing in a fitness watch. It doesn't have to be necessarily expensive. There are cheaper ones that sell for $30 and higher end ones that are about $150. Maintain a weight that is appropriate for your height. Some people may take low-dose aspirin (also known as baby aspirin) daily if it doesn't interfere with other medications or medical conditions that currently exist. Include healthier fats in the diets, such as foods rich in Omega fats. Increase soluble fiber to ten to twenty grams per day. Avoid having high blood pressure, and avoid diabetes (unless you are born with it, and in that case, maintain it properly). Keep in mind that statins can cause congenital disabilities (birth defects, physical and/or otherwise), so pregnant women with high cholesterol should not use statins, at all. If both parents have high familial cholesterol, every child born has a fifty percent chance of having it as well. Cartenoids, or certain antioxidants, can potentially lower inflammation in the human body. Carotenoids are found in foods like spinach, kale, and parsley. Scientists have "found that treatment with lutein reduced the cells' inflammation activity. The carotenoid reduced the cells' production and release of inflammatory cytokines, which are signaling molecules that promote inflammation." (Paddock, 2017) Another secret is COQ10. COQ10 is also known as Coenzyme Q10. In some studies, this fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin was found to help reduce inflammation within the cell walls dramatically, but it can not be taken with statins as statins lower the efficiency of COQ10. COQ10 was not shown to be effective in reducing atherosclerosis caused by smoking, however. Fish oil may lower cholesterol, so can garlic and garlic supplements, provided they are of high quality. A sugar cane extract known as policosanol can also lower cholesterol, as well as guggul, walnuts, and green tea (again, of high quality). " Products with green tea catechins in them are the only products that this has been studied in. They were found to reduce cholesterol levels in people who have high cholesterol slightly." (IQWIG, 2017)
Are Eggs the Devil?
Interestingly, "A new study finds that lutein, a compound that gives egg yolk and some plants their color, can reduce chronic inflammation in patients with coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease." (Paddock, 2017) Aside from this, eggs have only been shown to have a tiny effect on cholesterol. "Researchers at Yale University found that even those with coronary heart disease could safely consume two eggs per day for six weeks and experience no adverse effects on cholesterol levels. Plus, the "incredible, edible egg" is also a good source of choline, a nutrient that plays an important role in memory, and the yolk is packed with antioxidants such as lutein and Zeaxanthin." (Helmer, 2015) And in conclusion, the reason that Honey Nut Cheerios says that it's great great for your cholesterol is because it has 0 Grams of Cholesterol. The lack of cholesterol in a food item, and it's overall health benefit, is a debatable topic, but there it is, and here we are.
References Used for Cholesterol and Arterial Inflammation
Helmer, J. (2015) Everything You Thought You Knew About Cholesterol Is Wrong. Retrieved from: https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2015/cholesterol-myths.html
IQWIG. (2017) High cholesterol: Lowering cholesterol without tablets. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072511/
Paddock, C. (2017) Vegetable pigment may reduce inflammation in heart disease patients. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318310.php
Youngblom, E. (2014) Familial Hypercholesterolemia. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/books/NBK174884/
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Charlotte Doyle
Charlotte Doyle (author) from Texas on November 20, 2018:
Thank you !
Beth Allison from Maryland on November 16, 2018:
Great article...I just found out I have slightly high cholesterol myself so this was an interesting read.
Liz Westwood from UK on September 27, 2018:
It has been interesting to see how guidance has changed over the years about cholesterol.