THE GOOD & BAD OF CHOLESTEROL
Most of us know that high cholesterol can be dangerous, but we need cholesterol. If your cholesterol is too low, that can increase your risk of developing certain diseases as well.
Cholesterol is a waxy molecule that is made by your liver, and is found in animal products such as meat, butter, and eggs. Because cholesterol is not water-soluble, it needs to be transported in the blood by carrier molecules in order to be used by your cells. It combines with carrier molecules to form complexes that travel to your cells to be utilized for various functions.
Low cholesterol has been associated with serious diseases (see references below) such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease or memory loss
- Depression and suicidal thoughts
- Aggressive, violent mood disorders
We need cholesterol for production of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. We also use cholesterol for the formation of bile, which breaks down fats in your small intestine. Cholesterol is essential for creation of healthy cell membranes in all the cells of the body. We also use cholesterol to make vitamin D, which is very important for bone health, heart health, cancer prevention, and more.
So, clearly we need a healthy amount of cholesterol in order to prevent diseases and make sure our cells are functioning properly. If we do not get enough cholesterol in our diet, our liver has the ability to produce all the cholesterol we need, so even strict vegetarians can have adequate amounts of serum cholesterol.
How can cholesterol hurt you? Excess cholesterol from foods can cause a fatty build up, called plaque, in your arteries. The most dangerous type of fat that we can consume is called trans fat, or partially hydrogenated oil. Cholesterol deposits harden, a condition called atherosclerosis, leading to high blood pressure and increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
When people talk about low cholesterol or high cholesterol, that typically means elevated total cholesterol levels. This is just the tip of the iceberg when measuring cholesterol. There are ways of measuring not only your total cholesterol levels, but also your “good” and “bad” cholesterol as well.
What makes cholesterol “good” or “bad” are the transporters, or carrier molecules, that bring the cholesterol around in your bloodstream. When you eat food that contains fats, your intestines absorb the fat molecules and transport them to the liver to be processed. The liver then packages the cholesterol with the carrier molecule into complexes that can travel through the blood.
LDL is called “bad cholesterol” because it transports cholesterol from your liver to your tissues. If you eat too much cholesterol, LDL will deposit it in your arteries, heart, and around your organs. This is potentially very harmful, and leads to heart disease, high blood pressure, and increased risk of diabetes, as well as many other diseases. As a naturopathic physician, I want most of my patients’ LDL cholesterol to be lower than 100 mg/dL.
HDL is called “good cholesterol” because it picks up extra cholesterol in the blood and brings it back to liver to be processed. You can think of HDL as the clean up crew of the cholesterol team. I like to see my patients’ HDL measured at 60 mg/dL or higher. As far as I am concerned, the higher your HDL is, the better.
Triglycerides are another element of cholesterol testing. They are a type of fat that is made by your liver after a meal that is high in sugar or carbohydrates. Trans fats also raise triglycerides. Triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL, and if they are too high, it is likely that you are eating too much refined sugar or carbohydrates, or that your blood sugar levels are too high. People with diabetes often have elevated triglycerides, and balancing blood sugar will help to bring these numbers down.
There are many ways that I can help my patients to balance their cholesterol naturally, and also provide my patients with specialty cholesterol testing that goes beyond the standard measurements. These specialty tests measure the specific types of LDL and HDL cholesterol you have, which gives us a much clearer idea of your real risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or developing other types of diseases.
 Relation between cholesterol levels and neuropsychiatric disorders. Rev Neurol. 2009 Mar 1-15;48(5):261-4.
 Low serum cholesterol and external-cause mortality: potential implications for research and surveillance. J Psychiatr Res. 2009 Jun;43(9):848-54.
 Low serum cholesterol may be associated with suicide attempt history. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Dec;69(12):1920-7.