Did you know there is a bit of an over-emphasis on cholesterol?
But before we jump into some myths, let’s make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to what exactly cholesterol is.
Myth #1: “Cholesterol” is cholesterol
While cholesterol is an actual molecule, what it’s bound to while floating through your blood is more important than just how much of it is there overall. In fact, what it’s combined with could result in opposite effects on your arteries and heart.
So cholesterol is just one component of a compound that floats around your blood. These compounds contain cholesterol as well as fats and special proteins, called “lipoproteins”.
They are grouped into two main categories:
- HDL: High Density Lipoprotein (AKA “good” cholesterol), which “cleans up” some of those infamous “arterial plaques” and transports cholesterol back to the liver.
- LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein (AKA “bad” cholesterol), which transports cholesterol from the liver, is found to accumulate in arteries and become easily oxidized.
And yes, it’s even more complicated than this. Each of these categories is further broken down into subcategories, which can also be measured in a blood test.
So “cholesterol” isn’t simply cholesterol, as calories aren’t simply calories, because it has a very different effect on your body depending on which other molecules it is bound to in your blood and what it is actually doing there.
Myth #2: Cholesterol is bad
Cholesterol is absolutely necessary for your body to produce critical things, such as vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, your sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone), and bile to help you absorb dietary fats. And it’s incorporated into the membranes of your cells.
Talk about an important molecule!
The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA “total cholesterol”) isn’t nearly as important as how much of each kind are present in your blood.
While way too much LDL, as compared with HDL, (the LDL:HDL ratio) may be associated with an increase in risk of heart disease, it is absolutely not the only thing to consider for heart health.
Myth #3: Eating cholesterol increases your bad cholesterol
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. It’s actually not from the cholesterol you eat. Why do you think medications block an enzyme in your liver (HMG Co-A reductase, to be exact)? Because that’s where it’s made!
What you eat still can affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. After a cholesterol-rich meal, your liver doesn’t need to make as much.
Myth #4: Your cholesterol should be as low as possible
As with almost everything in health and wellness, balance needs to be maintained. There are very few extremes that are going to serve you well.
People with too-low levels of cholesterol have increased risk of death from other non-heart-related issues like certain types of cancers, as well as suicide.
Myth #5: Drugs are the only way to get a good cholesterol balance
Don’t start or stop any medications without talking with your doctor.
While drugs can certainly lower the “bad” LDL, they don’t seem to be able to raise the “good” HDL all that well.
But guess what does?
Nutrition and exercise!
Eat lots of fruits and veggies, up to 10 servings every day, to lower your cholesterol with diet.
You can (should?) also exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, and eat better quality fats. This includes fatty fish, avocados and olive oil. Ditch those over-processed hydrogenated “trans” fats.
The science of cholesterol and heart health is complicated and we are learning more every day. You may not need to be as afraid of it as you are. And there is a lot you can do with nutrition and lifestyle choices to improve your cholesterol level.
Have you had your cholesterol levels checked? What are you doing to balance your cholesterol levels?