There are many myths around high cholesterol and foods containing cholesterol. In this blog we will explore and bust some of these myths!
Myth: Eggs are bad because they raise your cholesterol!
Myth Busted: Eating any cholesterol does not result in overall higher cholesterol in the blood.
Why? Because the body regulates the level of cholesterol in the blood regardless of how much you eat.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes, two:
- A genetic condition called Familial Hypercholesterolemia which affects 1 in 500 people, where a person’s liver expresses much less LDL receptors and is therefore unable to clear ‘used’ cholesterol in LDL particles from the blood
- Cases of LOW cholesterol can be improved by eating more cholesterol; this is normally related to hypo caloric states, or liver disease, hyperthyroidism or cancer.
Cholesterol is a complex subject but the overview is very simple.
We need cholesterol to live, and we need a lot of it.
The body regulates how much cholesterol it needs to have in the blood, and at different times of the day, week, month or year it needs different amounts. We need more cholesterol when we are stressed, ill, pregnant, growing, injured, training, working hard or eating a bad diet that damages our body, and we need less when we are sedentary, relaxed, well, and generally chilled out and eating a good diet!
Cholesterol gets into our blood in two ways:
- Most of it is made by our liver
- The rest...max 20%...comes from our food.
Egg yolks contain a lot but all animal foods contain cholesterol because it is in the cell membranes, so the fat and the lean both contain cholesterol. If we ate no cholesterol at all (as a vegan might) we’d still end up with the right amount the body needs at any given moment, it’s just that the liver would have to work that bit harder to make it all.
That’s one cholesterol myth busted...the amount of cholesterol we eat, whether from eggs or anywhere, does not affect the total amount we end up with in our blood save for the above exceptions.
Low cholesterol is a big risk factor for mental diseases like depression or dementia and even for cancer. In fact research tells us that low cholesterol is a risk factor for more diseases than high cholesterol!
Is high cholesterol a bad thing at all?
The level fluctuates regularly but if it is chronically elevated then we should be concerned. The longer cholesterol stays high the more prone it is to oxidisation, the more oxidised it becomes the greater the propensity to induce foam cell production and arterial occlusion as a result of inflammation.
Over the long term we want the goldilocks amount in our blood...not too much, not too little...just right!
High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease for some people, in general people are better off with their cholesterol somewhere within the ‘goldilocks’ range, but many people with high cholesterol are healthy and never get heart disease, and many people with heart disease never get high cholesterol. This is because heart disease is not due to high cholesterol alone therefore focussing solely on high cholesterol is of limited benefit.
There are several factors involved in heart disease and different people are affected in different ways by one or more of the following:
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Inflammation in the arteries
- Stress or grief
- Fatty liver (steatosis)
- Autoimmune conditions
- High homocysteine
- High blood sugar
- Insulin resistance
A fair question to be asked is:
If the body is so good at regulating the amount of cholesterol in our blood...how do we get high cholesterol at all?
Remember from first principles, the body determines the amount of cholesterol in the blood. If we have too much our intestines would stop absorbing the cholesterol we eat, our liver would start making less and it would excrete more via bile into our bowels.
So any problem with these functions, for example hypothyroidism, IBS, bowel cancer or gut inflammation, will allow cholesterol to pool in the blood. Therefore high cholesterol is a sign to investigate these metabolic functions.
Separately cholesterol levels may also be high due to the need for more cholesterol, as per examples given above...injury, growth, stress etc.
Does eating fat elevate cholesterol?
Fat, particularly saturated fat is a substrate from which the liver produces cholesterol, so yes fat can turn into cholesterol...but the body still regulates this process on demand, so eating more fat (whilst eating the required amount of total calories) will not necessarily give you more blood cholesterol!
Whilst it is true that statin drugs can lower cholesterol levels, a more comprehensive approach to heart disease is to address the full spectrum of problems.
A Nutritional Therapist can advise you on what you can do to support the overall working of your body and thus improve many of the risk factors that contribute to heart disease.
In fact Nutritional Therapy, along with exercise, has proven itself to be the best intervention for reducing the risk of heart disease because it addresses several of the underlying causes...not just one! Contact www.ntoi.ie to find a qualified Nutritional Therapist in your area.
By Brendan O’Brien NT, MSc, mNTOI
Male Fertility Nutritional Consultant
Thanks to Brendan for contributing to the our blog this week as part of the Nutritional Therapy Awareness Week 2016.
Specialising in Fertility his qualifications and interests include:
- Holding a Diploma in Nutritional Therapy and a Master of Science Degree in Personalised Nutrition
- Worked for several years as a general nutritionist during which time I have had the pleasure of helping many women overcome fertility challenges and go on to achieve healthy pregnancies, but now I specialise exclusively in difficult-to-resolve male fertility cases.
- Teaches nutrition and supervise clinical training at the Irish Institute of Nutrition & Health