Is Your Cholesterol High Enough to be Healthy?
By Jen Palmer, Naturopathic Doctor (ND) & NEEDS Education Director
Cholesterol serves many important functions within the body and lowering it too much can actually be harmful to our health. Unfortunately, the guidelines recommending extremely low cholesterol levels have led to the over-prescription of statin drugs (cholesterol-lowering medications), which may lead to potentially dangerous side effects.
Moderate levels of cholesterol are not the enemy we've been told they are. Cholesterol actually plays several important roles in the body; it's a precursor for many hormones, serves as "insulation" around nerves, helps form bile acids (which help us digest fats and absorb fat-soluble vitamins), and it's an important component of every cell's membrane.
Low cholesterol levels may account for many symptoms of diseases. In women, it can lead to hormonal imbalances and negatively affect the menstrual cycle. Low cholesterol levels have also been associated with mental issues, such as depression and violent tendencies. Depression can occur in an individual with a total cholesterol level of just 150-160 (mg/dL), but it can subside when cholesterol levels increase.
Some research studies indicate that excessively low cholesterol levels may result in other health problems and increase mortality rates; therefore, the level considered to be "healthy" (200 mg/dL) should be adjusted upwards. In a cholesterol study conducted in Japan, 11,869 people were monitored for almost 12 years. Their cholesterol levels were recorded and they were divided into one of four groups based on their total cholesterol levels.
Those in the group with the lowest levels (<160 mg/dL) were shown to have a significant increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke and heart failure, excluding myocardial infarction, as compared to those with higher levels of cholesterol. They also found that there was no significant increased risk of these cardiovascular events in people with the highest levels of total cholesterol.
Statins can have a variety of side effects. Published studies indicate that some of the effects include: memory loss, neuropathy, mitochondrial dysfunction, confusion, increased blood sugar levels, liver disorders, and muscle pain.
Red Yeast Rice
Red yeast rice is one supplement that can reduce total cholesterol and LDL "bad" cholesterol. It contains the natural form of lovastatin, the chemical that statin drugs mimic. Small clinical trials have shown that it can reduce total cholesterol and LDL by about 25 percent in a few month, whereas the placebo only reduced LDL by 6 percent. The recommended dosage is 1,200- 2,400 mg per day.
CoQ10 is a naturally-occurring substance produced by the liver and is vital to energy production at the mitochondrial level of the body's cells. Mitochondria are microscopic organs within a cell that are responsible for combining oxygen and the nutrients from food to produce the energy necessary to power the cell. The heart, in particular, contains an especially high concentration of mitochondria and CoQ10.
CoQ10 is a multifaceted nutrient. As a powerful antioxidant, it may help prevent damage to tissues in the body from free radicals. It also helps preserve vitamin E in the body. Studies have linked vitamin E with helping to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol, which damages arterial walls. Cholesterol oxidation may also be associated with atherosclerosis— the build up of fatty deposits within arteries, which is connected to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
As we age, our CoQ10 levels drop. Research also shows that CoQ10 levels in people with heart disease are lower. Plus, those who are taking statin drugs tend to experience lower levels of CoQ10, since the same mechanism that inhibits cholesterol production also inhibits the body's production of CoQ10.
Plant sterols and their esters are naturally-occurring plant compounds that are similar in structure, yet slightly different from cholesterol. Plant sterols can be found in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, grains, and certain oils. Research shows that these compounds compete with the absorption of dietary cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract. Supplementation with high doses of plant sterols can significantly lower cholesterol levels and have been shown to work synergistically with other cholesterol-lowering therapies.
Research has shown plant sterols, or sterol esters, to be so effective that numerous food manufacturers, such as those making orange juice and rice drinks, are now incorporating them into their products. Increasingly, dietary supplements are also including plant sterols and using the health claim that has been allowed for products containing at least 800 mg of plant sterols daily.
Fish oil contains high amounts of polyunsaturated fats called omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, mackerel, tuna, and other types of cold-water fish are plentiful in omega-3s, which comes from the plankton that they—or the fish they eat—live on. Omega-3s from fish contain both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA is the direct precursor for the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and may help prevent the blood vessel inflammation associated with atherosclerosis. DHA is of primary importance to the structural integrity of the membranes of the nervous system.
The consumption of omega-3s supplements from fish have been associated with support of the cardiovascular system as well as the maintenance of neurological, ocular, joint, and skin health. Look for fish oils from cold-water fish and those that are rigorously tested for the absence of heavy metals and other environmental toxins.
For anyone trying to maintain healthy cholesterol levels and cardiac function, natural solutions like red yeast rice, CoQ10, plant sterols, and fish oil have been extensively researched and have anecdotal evidence to support their effectiveness.
These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.