Health Experts Now Agree: Cholesterol Not as Bad as Most Doctors Believed
For decades, Americans were told that they needed to carefully watch their cholesterol, as high cholesterol was linked to cardiovascular disease. Prescriptions in the United States for cholesterol-lowering drugs were being given by the hundreds of millions a year; annual global sales of these drugs mushroomed to staggering numbers — by most estimates, about $30 billion.
But now, more reports are coming out telling consumers that cholesterol isn’t the “bad guy” many people were led to believe it was for so many years.
What Is Cholesterol?
All the hoopla about keeping one’s cholesterol low made a lot of people believe that the waxy substance was something we should have in us as little as possible. But the truth is that cholesterol is made inside us all because it is an essential part of staying alive: there can be no life without it.
Cholesterol is one of several types of lipids — fats — that our bodies need, to function. We get some cholesterol from our foods; but most of it (75 percent) is made by the liver.
Cholesterol is needed to make the membranes of all body and brain cells; our bodies also use it to make a number of important hormones, including estrogen, testosterone and cortisone. The body uses the cholesterol in our skin to make vitamin D, a vital, multi-function vitamin, when the skin is exposed to sunshine. In the liver, cholesterol is used to make bile, which helps to digest fats from foods.
Because of its waxy consistency, cholesterol does not mix well with the water in our blood, where it is carried; therefore, cholesterol molecules mix with other fats and proteins and are then transported to all the tissues where they’re needed, and to and from the liver.
When cholesterol molecules get packaged inside proteins for transport, they’re called lipoproteins. Two types of these are recognized by health experts: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
Current conventional medicine holds that LDL cholesterol can get deposited on vascular walls, blocking them and contributing to risk of heart attack or stroke. HDL cholesterol is thought to remove LDL from vascular walls, and transport it back to the liver, where it is recycled and stored.
2004 U.S. Government Guidelines for Cholesterol Now Being Questioned
In 2004, the National Cholesterol Education Program panel put forth guidelines recommending that people with risks for cardiovascular disease aim to get their LDL cholesterol to lower levels than previously recommended. To achieve these new recommendations, people might have had to take multiple cholesterol-lowering drugs. Eight of the nine doctors on the panel were receiving payments from pharmaceutical companies that make statin cholesterol-lowering drugs (source: Dr. Joseph Mercola, DO).
But in 2006, a review in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the low LDL numbers that the panel had recommended. Further, the review concluded that there was no evidence that achieving the low LDL targets, in and of itself, was important.
What’s more, studies have found that getting cholesterol levels too low has dangers of its own. For instance, a large study conducted by Dutch researchers concluded that men whose cholesterol levels stayed low over time were consistently more likely to suffer from depression. Cholesterol is known to influence the metabolism of serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood. A study in Canada found that people in the lowest quarter of total cholesterol readings were more than six times more likely to commit suicide than those in the highest quarter.
Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Can Cause Serious Harm
But getting cholesterol levels dangerously low is only part of the risk of taking cholesterol drugs. There are other side effects to be concerned with.
As such, people who have been told by their doctors that they need to lower their cholesterol do well to try natural approaches for doing so. While each patient should make his or her own decision in consultation with their physician, doctors who advocate more natural approaches to treating illness believe that nearly all persons with high cholesterol can avoid taking the drugs, by simply adhering to healthier lifestyle choices. These doctors feel that cholesterol-lowering drugs should be taken only by people who have genetic conditions that cause their cholesterol levels to be high, despite their healthy lifestyles.
Cholesterol-lowering drugs are often, but not always, called “statins.” Their names sometimes end in “or” or “chol;” for example: Crestor, Lipitor, Zocor and Pravachol.
Cholesterol drugs don’t just inhibit the production and accumulation of cholesterol in the body, but also interfere with the production of other necessary natural chemicals. They impair different bodily processes and result in symptoms such as:
- Unexplained fatigue or weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Pain in upper stomach
- Yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes
(Anyone experiencing these symptoms should inform their doctor right away.)
In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration warned of other possible effects from taking statins, including a marked increase in blood sugar levels, which can put a person at greater risk for developing diabetes or worsen the status of someone who is already a diabetic. The FDA also cautioned that use of statins can produce significant memory or cognitive problems, including confusion, though these effects usually go away when a person stops taking the drugs.
More recently, cholesterol drugs have also been linked to Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease; this could be because they inhibit the formation of the fatty myelin sheath that coats the long segments of neurons; myelin sheaths insulate neural cells and help to speed communication between these cells.
Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the makers of cholesterol-lowering drugs, with millions of dollars paid out in settlements. Some suits have claimed that the drugs produce liver, kidney, muscle and nerve damage.
Natural Ways to Keep Cholesterol at Healthy Levels
Avoid Being Sedentary
Exercise is of course a great place to start in changing your body and improving cardiovascular health; it doesn’t have to be rigorous, especially if you haven’t done it in a while. A brisk 30-minute walk five times a week will produce excellent results, improve blood flow, help you lose unwanted fat and make your body more efficient at metabolizing nutrients. Avoid sitting for hours at a time too often; get up and move periodically, if you have to sit at a desk for too long.
Eat a Balanced Variety of Natural Foods
This will include plenty of fiber-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables; eat vegetables raw or lightly steamed as much as possible.
Avoid processed foods; choose healthy breakfast cereals, such as bran and raisin types, oatmeal and so forth. Avoid sugary cereals that are high on carbohydrates, fillers and preservatives, but low on nutrition.
Eggs are wonderfully nutritious and got a bad rap during the cholesterol scare; that said, because they do contain cholesterol, you don’t want to eat a half dozen at a time! Eat poached or boiled, to avoid adding fat calories from oil. But if you’re in the mood for fried or scrambled, use a little bit of olive or coconut oil to fry them. Avoid eating bacon, as it is not only high in fat and salt, but it also has chemical preservatives.
Choose quality lean meats (no processed meats, which have a lot of salt and artificial preservatives, color stabilizers, etc.); alternate eating red meats with leaner chicken (trim off the skin if it has fat under it) and heart-healthy fish such as salmon. Flavor your meats and other dishes with garlic, which is a wonderful flavor enhancer, as well as a good, natural blood thinner.
Canned soups are best avoided, as most have artificial chemicals and not a lot of meat or vegetables in them. It is so much better to make your own; use natural fresh or ground spices to flavor (look out for artificial chemicals or anti-caking agents in ground spices). Store unused portions in the freezer, so they are ready to warm up the next time you’re in the mood for soup.
Eat low-fat dairy foods; preferably organic. (Though you don’t want low-fat cheese or low-fat butter, because that involves substituting nutrition for stabilizers and possibly also artificial chemicals.) Make sure your cheeses are all-natural. Sliced, single-wrapped cheese is usually pretty bad when it comes to chemicals, so, it’s best avoided.
Also avoid all “trans fats,” which are artificially made; they will say “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated oil” on the label. These include margarines, shortenings, lard, non-dairy creamers, prepared cake frosting, pudding cups. Unfortunately, many store-bought cookies and crackers have hydrogenated oils; so, they’re to be avoided also. Try to shop at supermarkets where natural foods are sold.
Go easy on the fried foods; use heart-healthy olive or coconut oil for cooking, and don’t consume too much.
Snack on celery sticks, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and the like; mustard or natural lemon juice are natural, low-calorie, very healthy dips. Avocados are not just delicious and versatile but also have heart-healthy fats. Snack on some avocado slices with natural corn chips or potato chips.
Raw nuts are another great snack. A small handful of them will tide you over until mealtime; they’re packed with nutrition, as well as heart-healthy fats.
Avoid Smoking and Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption raise your risk of cardiovascular disease, including fatal events. Smoking promotes blood platelets to stick together and reduces the oxygen that reaches tissues.
As for alcohol, studies have shown that drinking one alcoholic beverage a day for women and up to two for men can improve circulation and lower LDL cholesterol by 10 percent. But drinking more than that quickly becomes a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and many other illnesses.
By Cynthia Sanchez. A graduate of the University of Washington, Cynthia has extensive experience writing about health and wellness topics for different media.