Heart | September 11, 2017 | Author: Naturopath
Cholesterol has a bad reputation. Its link to heart disease – the number one cause of death in Australia, the US and the UK – has painted cholesterol as the bad guy, and public health campaigns over the last 30 years have told us that it is something to be avoided at all costs.
But did you know that cholesterol is essential for health, and that low cholesterol can be not only dangerous, but potentially fatal?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in every cell of the body. The liver creates most of the cholesterol required by the body, but a small amount can also be absorbed from animal-based foods (e.g. cheese, milk, eggs and meat). Cholesterol is transported throughout the body via small carrier packages called lipoproteins. If you have a blood test for cholesterol, you'll see that the test measures different types of these lipoprotein – these levels help to determine risk of developing cardiovascular disease. There are five types of lipoprotiens, but the main ones are HDL and LDL:
HDL – High Density Lipoproteins. These carriers transport cholesterol away from organs and back to the liver. This is often called “good cholesterol”, and having high HDL cholesterol lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
LDL – Low Density Lipoproteins. These couriers move cholesterol from the liver to organs, and can deposit cholesterol in arteries on the way. This cholesterol can become oxidised and cause damage to the lining of the arteries. Having high LDL increased risk of CVD, giving it the nickname of “bad cholesterol”.
Heart disease occurs when LDL-carried cholesterol is deposited in the arteries. The build-up of cholesterol can become oxidised and hardened. This causes a disease called atherosclerosis – blood vessels become narrow from the build-up of cholesterol, and blood flow to the heart is slowed down or completely blocked. Without adequate blood flow, the heart muscle doesn't receive enough oxygen, potentially resulting in a heart attack .
This is the worst-case scenario of how cholesterol can really stuff things up for us. But the body doesn't make cholesterol just to deposit it in your arteries and give you chest pain. In fact, cholesterol is essential for health.
Cholesterol is found in every cell in the body. It's a key component in cell membranes and is used by structures within cells, too. Without adequate cholesterol, cells lose their flexibility, ability to signal to each other, and their integrity – cholesterol strengthens the cell membrane to prevent small water soluble molecules from passing through the barrier.
Cholesterol is also found in the mitochondria of cells where the body's energy is produced, and in the endoplasmic reticulum – an area where proteins are coded from DNA. Without cholesterol, our cells would be too fluid-y and permeable, we'd have no energy, and no proteins  – basically, no life!
These hormones have a wide variety of roles in the body, including regulating the metabolism, promoting sex characteristics, promoting fertility, regulating blood pressure, dealing with stress and supporting the immune system. None of this would be possible without cholesterol!
Cholesterol is a key ingredient in bile salts – they are essential for digesting fats and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin E. Deficiencies in these vitamins results in a huge variety of symptoms, from poor eyesight to osteoporosis. Bile is also an important detoxification pathway to get used up hormones out of the body.
Cholesterol is essential for brain function. It is required for synapse activity and in signal transmission between brain cells. Cell membranes in the brain may become less viscous and less flexible when cholesterol is unavailable , resulting in poor messaging.
While high cholesterol is a risk factor for Alzheimers and dementia, low cholesterol also impairs cognitive performance in healthy older individuals  . In one study, people with moderate cholesterol levels performed better on activities testing abstract reasoning, attention, word fluency and executive functioning than those with low cholesterol .
Cholesterol is required for mood regulation. Brain receptors use cholesterol to uptake serotonin, the “happy” brain chemical. Low levels of cholesterol leads to to an imbalance in serotonin and dopamine, which can cause mood problems, impulse control issues, and serious mental health issues .
A 2017 study investigated links between mental health and cholesterol levels in 188 war veterans. The researchers found that veterans who reported suicidal ideation had a significantly lower amount of cholesterol than those who did not. In fact, it was shown that a decrease of cholesterol levels may increase suicidality, and low cholesterol may be a biomarker of suicide ideation and depression .
If you have low cholesterol, speak to your health practitioner for a full health examination to determine the cause before beginning any treatment on your own.
Cholesterol from bile salts can be reabsorbed in the digestive system, and transported back to the liver. This kind of cholesterol is more likely to oxidise and cause atherosclerosis. Eating fibre can add bulk to the stool, helping to “catch” the cholesterol in the digestive tract and help to move it out of the body.
High fibre foods like fruits and vegetables are the best way to boost your fibre intake, or try adding oats, psyllium husk, ground nuts or seeds to your meals.
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Eggs, cheese and butter all provide some dietary cholesterol which can boost low levels when eaten in moderation. If you're worried about going overboard, be sure to include lots of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet – they help to boost HDL and lower LDL levels . Foods rich in omega-3s include flax seed oil (aka linseed oil), avocados, walnuts, and oily fish, or you can try a good quality fish oil supplement.
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These top three herbal extracts and teas are used to lower “bad” LDL-cholesterol and boost healthy HDL levels:
 Goldberg, A. C. (2015) Overview of Lipid Metabolism. Merck Manual Database. http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/hormonal-and-metabolic-disorders/cholesterol-disorders/overview-of-cholesterol-and-lipid-disorders
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 Mirzabeigi, P., et al. (2015) The Effect of Curcumin on some of Traditional and Non-traditional Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Pilot Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Trial. Iran J Pharm Res., 14:2, 479 – 486. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4403064/
 Foggelman, Y., et al. (2016) Antiatherosclerotic effects of licorice extract supplementation on hypercholesterolemic patients: decreased CIMT, reduced plasma lipid levels, and decreased blood pressure. Food Nutr Res., 60, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4845696/