Busting the Cholesterol Myths

April 6th, 2009

The Cholesterol MythsAlthough there are many different forms of heart disease, atherosclerosis is the one that typically inspires most concern. It’s characterized by hardened arteries that restrict the flow of blood to the heart and is caused by the scar tissue created through the repair of cellular damage within the arterial lining. The scar tissue associated with atherosclerosis is susceptible to rupturing and can cause a blood clot that may further restrict, or even completely block, the flow of blood to the heart.

The materials that accumulate in the artery wall in response to cell damage are collectively referred to as plaque. As one of these materials, cholesterol earned it’s bad reputation simply by being at the scene of the crime.

It’s now widely accepted and agreed upon that the build up of plaque happens within the artery wall rather than at it’s surface and is a direct result of cellular damage. However, much of the general population still believes that plaque build up is caused by high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol circulating in the blood that simply cling to the arterial lining and accumulate.

Cholesterol is Essential to Good Health

The membrane of a cell is highly important not only because of the physical protection that it provides, but also because it influences the cell’s function by regulating interaction with hormones, neurotransmitters and other influential substances, and also by controlling the transfer of nutrients. Cholesterol is a key component of the cell membrane, and as such, is an important factor in the health and integrity of the trillions of cells that your body is made of.

Cholesterol is required to produce important sex and corticosteroid hormones. It’s a precursor to vitamin D as well which is also a hormone and is of equal importance. These hormones effect human function in nearly every way imaginable and low levels of cholesterol will result in hormonal deficiencies and imbalances that can leave you susceptible to major disease.

Cholesterol coats nerve fibers and is an essential part of synapse development. As such, cholesterol is essential to proper nervous system and brain function. In fact, low levels of cholesterol are associated with memory disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

These are just some of the more significant reasons why cholesterol is so important. For a more thorough description, you can read Cholesterol: Friend or Foe? by Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD.

The Myth of Good and Bad Cholesterol

Cholesterol is typically measured in three different ways: total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. However, LDL and HDL are not actually cholesterol. They are the lipoproteins that carry cholesterol through the blood. LDL is a low density lipoprotein that carries cholesterol from the liver to tissue while HDL is a high density lipoprotein that carries cholesterol away from tissue and back to the liver to be metabolized and reused.

LDL is regarded as “bad” because it brings cholesterol to arteries and HDL is regarded as “good” because it carries cholesterol away from arteries. If excess transport of cholesterol to arteries is undesirable, then don’t you think the body would eliminate cholesterol rather than returning it to the liver to be recycled? Obviously, the body considers it to be an important resource.

The amount of cholesterol being transported throughout the body is simply an indication of how much need there is for it. A high level of LDL indicates an excessive amount of cellular damage that needs to be repaired and is very unlikely to mean that the liver is malfunctioning and producing far more cholesterol than what’s needed. Besides, if this were the case, it would completely contradict the efficiency of cholesterol being returned to the liver for reuse.

High Cholesterol Doesn’t Cause Heart Disease

Much of the general population still believes that atherosclerosis is caused by cholesterol and saturated fat sticking to artery walls simply because of high concentrations in the blood. However, it is now widely accepted in the scientific community that atherosclerosis is instead caused by cell damage and inflammation that occur within the arterial lining.

When cellular damage occurs, the immune system is activated to repair it, and inflammation results. During this process, repair materials can accumulate, scar tissue can form, and the immune substances can even cause additional damage. When this happens within the arterial lining, the artery becomes restricted and less elastic. As cellular damage continues to occur, these effects accumulate and are likely to eventually result in atherosclerosis.

Some of the factors that cause cellular damage and inflammation in the lining of arteries include stress, high blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, exposure to toxic chemicals, lack of quality nutrition, and infection. As you can hopefully see, all of these factors are heavily influenced by lifestyle.

Contradicting Evidence

In 1953, determined to identify intake of saturated animal fats as the cause of heart disease, Ancel Keys published a chart showing that the number of deaths caused by heart disease increases sharply along with an increase in fat intake.

While the research used to create this chart included data for 22 countries, Keys only used data for 6 of them and conveniently excluded the 16 other countries that didn’t support his theory. Many of the excluded countries showed either low incidence of heart disease despite a high fat intake or a high incidence of heart disease with a low fat intake.

In the early 1960s, Professor George Mann of Vanderbilt University visited the Masai tribe of Kenya to solidify Key’s theory, but instead, he found evidence that strongly contradicted it. The diet of this tribe consisted entirely of milk, blood and meat. They ate no vegetables whatsoever and consumed excessive amounts of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. In direct contrast to Key’s theory, they had no incidence of heart disease and their cholesterol levels were 50% lower than those of Americans! The Eskimos are a great example of this paradox as well.

Another interesting contradiction is that much of the modern research on cholesterol, when analyzed closely, actually shows that most people who die from heart disease have cholesterol levels that are lower than average. However, due to the corporate influence and dishonesty that has plagued modern research, this data is still presented in a way to support the idea that cholesterol causes heart disease.

Although I won’t go into all of it here, there is plenty of analysis on modern heart disease research that dispels many of the cholesterol myths that we’ve come to accept as common knowledge. For a more in depth discussion, refer to the two books listed at the bottom of this article.

The Irony of the Healthy Heart Diet

Because saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are said to cause heart disease, we’re told to consume as little of these nutrients as possible. As portrayed by the American food pyramid, we’re told to eat large amounts of grains such as bread and pasta instead.

Given the importance of saturated fat and cholesterol in maintaining proper cell function, it’s counterintuitive to restrict them from your diet. Even worse, the suggested alternative is downright dangerous and plays a significant role in the high incidence of poor health in modern society.

While some of us do much better than others on a high carbohydrate diet, nobody does well on the excessive amount of processed and starchy carbohydrates such as bread and pasta that are such a major part of the modern diet. These foods cause drastic fluctuations in blood sugar levels which are not only a major risk factor for diabetes, but also damage arteries and cause the inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis.

In addition to eating a large amount of grains, we’re also told to replace saturated fats with the unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils. This is a problem because nearly all vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids and other polyunsaturated fatty acids that are susceptible to oxidation. These factors promote the inflammation and tissue damage associated with atherosclerosis.

Who’s to Blame?

Although most of the information we receive about cholesterol is through mainstream media, much of it originates from the pharmaceutical industry, and they’ve been quite successful at leading us to believe that the majority of the population is at risk for heart disease. This has gotten so out of hand that cholesterol lowering medication is even being prescribed to children!

Based on the shocking number of people currently taking cholesterol medication and the drug ads that downplay the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, it seems as if a large percentage of the population is genetically dysfunctional and is producing too much cholesterol. It also suggests that nature has made a major mistake. Do you honestly believe that such a significant flaw exists in our evolution? More likely, this is just another case of greedy corporations disregarding the inherent intelligence of nature.

Cholesterol medication is a $29 billion dollar industry that is keeping many families fed, putting many kids through college, and is providing many executives with big houses and fancy cars. As such, there is tremendous incentive for the pharmaceutical industry to have you believe that your cholesterol level puts you at risk for heart disease. Citing cholesterol as the root cause of heart disease is like blaming a fire truck for starting a fire, but despite the power of this logic, there’s little hope of it generating even a fraction of the revenue that cholesterol medication generates.

Is Cholesterol Medication the Right Choice?

The pharmaceutical industry has significant influence on politics, medical schools and doctors. As such, many of the doctors that prescribe you cholesterol lowering medication are products of this influence. Current guidelines suggest that anyone with a total cholesterol level above 200 mg/dl, or about 5 mmol/L, is at risk for heart disease and should be on medication. Based on more recent recommendations, some doctors are even prescribing medication for anything above 185 mg/dl or 4.8 mmol/L.

An honest analysis of the heart disease research shows some populations to have a low incidence of heart disease with cholesterol levels averaging around 250 mg/dl. Another revealing piece of evidence that can be found from a close look at the research is that in many cases, low cholesterol levels can be more dangerous than high levels, particularly in the elderly, and particularly when the low cholesterol levels are a result of medication.

The pharmaceutical industry is literally turning millions of healthy people into patients and customers with their questionable guidelines. If you’re one of these people, take responsibility and do something about it!

With a good understanding of cholesterol’s role in the human body, it should be quite clear that high levels are much more of a symptom than a cause. As such, taking cholesterol medication is merely chasing the symptoms, which is a temporary solution at best, and is completely neglecting the lifestyle factors that are causing the cellular damage and inflammation in the arteries.

Statins, the most popular type of medication prescribed for lowering blood cholesterol, are often quite dangerous and create more risk than they reduce. The reasons why this medication is so dangerous are discussed thoroughly in the two books listed below.

Further Reading

Because this is a highly controversial topic, I don’t expect you to be accepting of this information the first time you read it. Most people need to be exposed to multiple sources of an opinion before opening their mind to it. As such, I recommend the following three resources to help you get a better and deeper understanding of the issues surrounding modern cholesterol beliefs.

The Cholesterol Myths by Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD addresses 9 common myths regarding cholesterol and delves deep into the flawed and manipulated research that “supports” each one.

$29 Billion Reasons to Lie About Cholesterol by Justin Smith is an excellent resource that tells you everything you need to know about cholesterol, the dietary factors that influence it, the questionable intentions of the pharmaceutical industry, and like Dr Ravnskov’s book, also analyzes much of the “supporting” research.

The work of Dr. Weston A. Price, which is thoroughly depicted in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, provides undeniable evidence that primitive cultures who regularly consumed significant amounts of animal fat and cholesterol enjoyed exceptional health and suffered from very little disease.

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