What is the Big Deal about Cholesterol?

By Dr. Tonya Fleck

“My total cholesterol is 237 and my doctor wants to put me on a lipid lowering medication.  What are my options?  And should I be concerned?”

This is a common question that patients have.  Conventionally we are taught to associate cholesterol with bad health, yet in fact this fat-like substance is essential for proper health. It is essential for the health of our cell membranes and is also the precursor for many hormones, including our sex hormones.  So why has Lipitor (a statin or cholesterol lowering drug) been the #1 prescription dispensed since 2000?

The concern is that when certain types of our cholesterol are elevated, we can develop fatty deposits in our arterial walls and increase our risk for cardiovascular disease.  So looking only at your total cholesterol doesn’t tell you the whole truth.

Cholesterol is carried in the blood by proteins called lipoproteins. You may have heard of the terms "good" and "bad” cholesterol. HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol, carries excess cholesterol to your liver for export. LDL (low-density lipoprotein), or bad cholesterol, transports cholesterol throughout your body where it can build up in arteries.  The good news is this:  High LDL cholesterol is completely avoidable.  Diet, lifestyle factors, and genetics all play a role in your cholesterol. A whole foods diet composed of vegetables and fruits, lean protein, and whole grains with minimal prepackaged foods is imperative for health.

Avoid foods high in saturated fats such as organ meats and whole milk products. Eat meats that are free-range, grass-fed and grass-finished. Wild fish such as salmon have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which can protect against cardiovascular disease. Farm raised fish contain very small amounts healthy omega-3’s.  Avoid trans or partially hydrogenated fats.  Eggs have gotten a bad rap. Several recent studies have shown no corresponding increase in egg consumption and blood cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber found in foods such as beans, oats, flaxseed and psyllium also help lower bad cholesterol. And of course regular cardiovascular exercise lowers triglycerides and LDL while increasing HDL. Losing weight if you are overweight will also greatly improve cholesterol numbers.

Some of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the US are statins, which work by blocking an enzyme that makes cholesterol in your liver. Lipitor, Zocor, and Crestor are examples. But these drugs can have side effects, including muscle aches, liver toxicity, and block the production of Co-enzyme Q10, a natural compound concentrated in the heart muscle and a powerful antioxidant.  Patients taking statins should speak with their doctor about supplementing with Co-enzyme Q10.

There are numerous supplements that can lower cholesterol besides dietary changes and exercise. Garlic, lecithin, guggul, green tea, fish oil, and niacin are just a few. Policosanols and red yeast rice are also fairly well-known natural cholesterol-lowering substances. If you are unsuccessful at lowering your cholesterol through dietary changes, exercise, and weight loss alone, it would be best to speak with a naturopathic physician concerning what an appropriate protocol may be for you.

If you have questions please call 831.477.1377 to schedule a FREE 15-minute consultation.