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Cholesterol – What is it?

Lynne Brown
BSc Hons, HDE, Dip Clin Nutr

Focusing on Heart Health

To understand how supplements and dietary changes can prevent heart disease we need to understand what actually causes heart disease. Some scientists would say there is no such thing as heart disease, there is only arterial disease and considering that the main factors responsible for so-called “heart disease” are the formation of deposits in the arteries, along with hardening of the arteries and the presence of blood clots or thick blood, they do have a point.

Cholesterol – What is it?

Cholesterol is an essential part of every cell in your body and is needed for proper brain and nerve function. It is manufactured in the liver and transported through the bloodstream by means of molecules called lipoproteins. Low density lipoproteins or LDLs are the major transporters of cholesterol away from the liver to the cells where it is needed. High density lipoproteins or HDLs carry unneeded cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver for disposal. LDL cholesterol has unfortunately been mislabeled “bad” cholesterol but, as you can tell from its essential function, God did not make a mistake when he created LDL cholesterol. Yet, since the late 70’s, cholesterol rightly or wrongly, has been implicated in the increased incidence of heart attacks.

So what is the problem?

If there is too much excess cholesterol for the HDLs to pick up promptly or if there are not enough HDLs to do the job of cleaning up, the excess native LDL cholesterol then hangs around in the bloodstream for too long giving free radicals a chance to oxidize or change the cholesterol into the villains that begin to damage the lining of the arteries. The body automatically tries to heal itself by patching these lesions with plaque, and patch upon patch eventually causes narrowing of the arteries and hardening of the arterial walls; and heart disease is in business! Now you know why your doctor tells you to work on raising your HDL and lowering your LDL cholesterol.

Do low-cholesterol diets help?

It is important to distinguish between serum cholesterol and dietary cholesterol, serum cholesterol being the cholesterol in the blood stream and dietary cholesterol, the cholesterol that is present in food. It is thought that lowering your intake of dietary cholesterol may help to lower serum cholesterol although there is little evidence of this. The liver makes 80% of the body’s cholesterol and cholesterol levels in the bloodstream are regulated automatically by a HEALTHY liver. Some people have found that cutting down on their intake of saturated fats, meat and dairy, eating a high fibre diet with lots of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, has resulted in lower cholesterol levels. This, however, may have more to do with changing to a healthy diet thus improving one’s liver function and its ability to regulate cholesterol levels. It is not advisable though to cut out all high-cholesterol foods and a low-cholesterol diet is preferable to a no-cholesterol diet. Cutting down too drastically on fats may also cause an undesirable drop in HDL cholesterol.

Margarine is not an option

Remember there are good fats and bad fats and don’t be fooled into thinking that because margarine and vegetable oils are cholesterol-free they are a better option for you. They contain trans fatty acids that become oxidized when heated and can clog the arteries. On the other hand, olive oil is known to increase HDL levels and thought to be the reason for the low serum cholesterol levels found in people living in Italy and Greece. Thank goodness somebody also noticed that heart disease amongst Eskimos is virtually unheard of, even though they live on blubber. An explanation for this lies in the omega-3 fatty acids in the cold-water fish which are also part of their diet so once again I urge you to supplement your diet with fish oil.


Even the much-maligned egg is being vindicated these days as many studies have found no rise in blood cholesterol levels caused by eating eggs but the eggs should be fresh, free-range and either poached or boiled. Free-range eggs contain lecithin that is known to dissolve cholesterol so that it does not form plaques in the blood vessels.

How to raise HDL levels

  • Regular aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging or bike riding that raises your heart rate for 20-30 minutes at a time.
  • If overweight, lose weight.
  • 3000-4000mg vitamin C (Ester C) a day in divided doses because the higher the level of vitamin C in your blood, the higher your HDL level.
  • 1000mg a day of pharmaceutical grade fish oil will bring down LDL levels and raise HDL.
  • Add a soluble fibre supplement to your diet.
  • Use monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and avoid all hydrogenated fats.
  • Chromium is a mineral that has been shown to change LDL into HDL.
  • Stop smoking.

Is high cholesterol a myth?

There are opposing theories about high cholesterol levels, some health practitioners believing it has little to do with heart disease. After all, 50% of heart attack patients have normal cholesterol. A new kid on the block, goes by the name of homocysteine, and more and more this faction is being considered as a better heart health indicator than cholesterol.

Disclaimer: All information here is for educational purposes only and is not meant to cure, heal, diagnose nor treat. This information must not be used as a replacement for medical advice, nor can the writer take any responsibility for anyone using the information instead of consulting a healthcare professional.  All serious disease needs a physician.

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