As we all know, there has been long standing concern and confusion over the actual vs supposed health risk from high levels of cholesterol in the blood. Recently, it has been suggested that virtually all older persons should be on statin cholesterol-lowering drugs. (Which by the way are said to damage stem cells.) I worry that too often these discussions make it sound like cholesterol is an enemy. And they fail to mention why we have it to begin with. Therefore, I list the following just to provide some context for the debate which I guarantee will not end any time soon.
- Big picture, nature’s original plan always makes sense. Why would we be given this waxy, fat-like substance in every cell of the body if it was designed to kill us?
- About 75-80% of our blood cholesterol is made in the body…because we need it. If you eat cholesterol (e.g. in eggs), the body turns down its own production. Eating poorly (e.g. sugar and fake foods) can confuse the body into making too much cholesterol.
- Cholesterol is required for us to make vitamin D.
- We make hormones (including testosterone and estrogen) from cholesterol.
- Cholesterol helps protect nerve fibers and is needed for proper brain function.
- Bile that helps us digest fats is made from cholesterol. (Inadequate bile flow as one might have with gall bladder trouble or a low fiber diet is one reason for elevated cholesterol.)
- Cell membranes depend on cholesterol. Membranes don’t just hold cells contents together. They also make sure that nutrients get in and wastes get out.
- Cholesterol may be in the plaque in arteries because it is there to help repair damage. We need to be wary of things that damage arteries.
Sometimes I hear pronouncements that make it sound as though the “lower the cholesterol the better”. Given the important roles of cholesterol listed above, common sense says we would get in trouble if it is too low. In fact, with very low cholesterol there are more deaths from “all causes”, including cancer, violence, accidents, suicide (article) and even cardiovascular disease! Another study. Check this out: A study found that elderly folks with cholesterol lower than 189 had a doubled risk of dying early.
Cholesterol can irritate the lining of arteries when it becomes oxidized (e.g. rusty) due to either toxins or lack of protective antioxidants like vitamin E. Irritated arteries can build up plaque (which does contain cholesterol along with calcium.) Very high levels of cholesterol are associated with cardiovascular problems. That means they often appear together. However, the issue isn’t so black and white. I’m not sure it has been proven that the high levels themselves are the cause of the heart disease or have just become elevated in response to some other problem that also causes heart disease.