Our Friend Cholesterol
Our Friend Cholesterol
Revisiting misconceptions and rediscovering the benefits of cholesterol
"The diet-heart hypothesis that suggests that high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons of pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprises, food companies and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century."
Dr. George V. Mann
After over 50 years of concerted industry efforts to demonize dietary fats of all stripes, but especially saturated fats and cholesterol, we find ourselves at an interesting historical intersection.
On one hand, a new school of thinking has dawned, and according to its tenets, a diet high in healthy fats is beneficial for the prevention of a wide variety of degenerative health conditions, especially affecting the brain and nervous system. And cholesterol is one of those healthy fats.
Eating fatty foods does not contribute to weight gain, and eating cholesterol does not raise your risk of coronary heart disease… it doesn’t even directly impact our cholesterol levels! Several studies have confirmed that in those who eat eggs regularly, blood cholesterol levels are completely on par with those who eat few eggs or none whatsoever.
On the other hand, we are still very much in the shadow of a zeitgeist that has shaped our very perception of fatty foods. No matter how much scientific literature is published year after year, the fear that fats like cholesterol will add to our waistline or cause our hearts to seize seems to stubbornly persist.
Does cholesterol in our food raise cholesterol in our body?
Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal foods. So how is it that vegans can present with high cholesterol? The answer is that the relationship between our levels of circulating cholesterol, and the amount of it we get in our diet, is indirect.
When you test cholesterol levels, about 80 per cent of what you’re looking at is cholesterol produced by the liver. It does this because cholesterol is very important to our health! When we do eat foods that are rich in cholesterol, our body gets the signal that it doesn’t need to produce anymore. We produce two grams of cholesterol every day- far more than we would ever eat. However, producing endogenous (internal) cholesterol is a laborious and energy-intensive chore for the liver, which is why obtaining cholesterol from the food we eat is preferential.
When dietary cholesterol is cut off, the liver responds by producing an enzyme that converts dietary carbohydrates into usable cholesterol. Interestingly, this enzyme made by the liver to raise cholesterol levels is the same enzyme targeted by statin drugs to bring total levels of cholesterol down. The ironic but logical conclusion of these physiological facts is that easing off the sugar and refined carbs, while restoring cholesterol-rich foods in the diet, will halt the overproduction of the body’s cholesterol supply.
Cholesterol and Hormones
Steroid hormones are all synthesized from cholesterol. It is therefore the number one critical foundational building block for reproductive hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. So it’s no surprise that studies have correlated the use of statin medication with majorly compromised libido. It is among the most commonly reported side effects. Men who take statins are 200 per cent more likely to have significantly reduced testosterone.
Another hormone called calciferol, which we know more commonly as vitamin D, is made from cholesterol as well. Sunlight contacting the cholesterol in our skin is the very first step in vitamin D production. Vitamin D is not just a hormone but a very important one with receptors in almost every single cell type in the body, and deficiency can cause a huge variety of symptoms ranging from mood imbalances and aches and pains to various autoimmune conditions. It’s known as the sunshine vitamin, but it could just as easily be known as the cholesterol vitamin!
Cholesterol and Mental Health
Cholesterol is an important fuel for neurons, and it is also critically important for serotonin signalling. It might therefore not be very surprising that low cholesterol is highly predictive of depression and low moods. One study of elderly men in 1997 showed a three-fold risk of depression in the low-cholesterol group compared with the high-cholesterol group. Since then, those findings have been confirmed multiple times.
To rightfully restore dietary cholesterol to the broader pantheon of healthy options is to reclaim the beauty and value of natural, unrefined, and unprocessed whole foods. It is also to credit the inherent wisdom of the human body- after all, these glorious machines don’t produce anything without a very good reason for doing so.
And cholesterol is no exception.
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