ESTIMATED READING TIME 4 MINUTES
Have you been told to reduce your cholesterol to protect yourself from cardiovascular disease? Do you shy away from foods high in cholesterol and saturated fats because you’ve heard they can harm your arteries?
On the other hand, has anyone ever told you about the dangers of low cholesterol?
Looking ahead to National Cholesterol Awareness Month, read on to learn about the good side of cholesterol.
High levels of certain types of cholesterol in the bloodstream have been linked in some studies to heart disease. In certain people, cholesterol accumulates inside their blood vessels, creating atherosclerotic plaques. These plaques narrow blood vessels, increasing the likelihood of heart attacks or stroke.
An important thing to note about cholesterol is your body makes it every single day. Around 75% is made in your liver, with only around a quarter coming from dietary sources. You might wonder, then, why your body would produce something so potentially damaging to your heart and circulation. The simple answer is your body needs cholesterol because it performs a whole host of crucial functions for you.
Statin drugs work by preventing your body from making cholesterol. Around 8 million adults in the UK take statins to combat high cholesterol levels. This begs the question why so many people are making so much of this vital substance.
If your cholesterol is high, you might be advised to avoid cholesterol-containing foods like eggs, cheese and shellfish. However, most people, when they eat foods containing cholesterol, will simply make less because an internal feedback mechanism keeps levels stable. A certain amount of cholesterol is clearly important for your body.
Although you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s necessary to drive cholesterol down as far as possible, once levels drop too low you’ll experience a host of unpleasant side effects. Too little cholesterol is a real issue because it’s needed to make hormones, it’s an ingredient in the membranes surrounding your brain cells and it’s used to make vitamin D.
Let’s look at these issues in turn.
Cholesterol is a large, complex, molecule, and it provides a structure from which the so-called ‘master hormone’ pregnenolone is made. This in turn can be converted to progesterone, testosterone, oestrogen and stress hormones. So, not enough cholesterol may cause hormone imbalances. These can affect every single cell of your body.
Would it surprise you to learn around 20% of the cholesterol in your body is not plastered inside your arteries but it’s in your brain? In fact, your brain contains more cholesterol than any other organ in your body. Because it’s so important, your brain cells make cholesterol for themselves.
Cholesterol is found in the myelin sheath, the fatty covering around brain cells. This helps to insulate nerve cells and improve the transmission of messages. One study found total cholesterol levels lower than 160mg/dl were linked to depression and anxiety 1. The NHS recommends people keep their levels below 193mg/dl, so it’s easy to become deficient. Another study linked low cholesterol levels with postnatal depression 2.
Some research suggests disordered cholesterol levels may be connected with Alzheimer’s disease. It appears to play a role in the clearance of amyloid plaques, misfolded proteins that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. There are also findings suggesting low cholesterol may be connected with autism 3.
Low vitamin D caused by cholesterol shortage can cause weak bones, cognitive impairment, poor immunity and, ironically, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common in the UK, especially in wintertime, and can lead to elevated ongoing inflammation, believed to be at the root of all chronic disease.
Other studies have linked low cholesterol with increased susceptibility to cancer, autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammation.
To make matters more complicated, cholesterol can exist in different forms and only seems to pose a problem if it’s oxidised, meaning it’s damaged. Some researchers suggest cholesterol is a marker for artery damage rather than the cause, acting almost like a sticking plaster for blood vessels. This means driving levels down won’t address the reason cholesterol is elevated, and will simply cause other problems.
Functional testing can reveal how much of the different types of cholesterol your body is producing, and can measure the levels of other important blood fats. Dietary, supplement and lifestyle recommendations can then be implemented to correct cholesterol imbalances, prevent it from being oxidised and reduce inflammation.
Are you concerned about your cholesterol levels? Why not book a free 15-minute discovery call to see if Functional Medicine is for you.
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