Understanding Cholesterol

Lately there has been some debate in the medical world on what the ideal levels of cholesterol should be.  It is commonly believed that cholesterol is a bad thing, but it is important to know that cholesterol has a purpose in the body.  Cholesterol is required to make hormones and vitamin D, among other things.  Therefore, having diets  that contain no cholesterol can be as harmful as having a diet high in cholesterol.  

I am almost 100% certain that you or someone you know has been diagnosed with "high cholesterol" (hypercholesterolemia).  In fact, 2 of the top selling drugs in North America are cholesterol-lowering medications (ie. Crestor, Lipitor).  But what does having high cholesterol actually mean for your health?  High cholesterol is diagnosed when total cholesterol is above optimal levels in the blood.  Generally, you will see high levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein) and total cholesterol and low levels of HDL (high density lipoprotein).   LDL brings cholesterol into the bloodstream while HDL takes it out of the bloodstream.

Those with high cholesterol are at greater risk of developing heart disease since the cholesterol is not being removed from the blood (arteries) properly.  This means that there is a greater chance of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral artery disease because blood flow is disrupted by narrowed arteries.

The good news is that high cholesterol is almost always preventable.  One exception to the rule would be in those with familial hypercholesterolemia, where there is actually an inherited component involved.

Here are some things that can help to optimize your cholesterol levels:

  • Eat enough fiber:  Fiber plays an important role in the excretion of excess cholesterol from the body.  The average person should consume at least 30 grams of fiber daily, but it is estimated that most people have less than 15-20 grams a day.  Fiber can be found in fruits, vegetables, and grains (ie oats, oat bran) in varying amounts.  Generally, fruits and vegetables contain 2-5 grams of fiber per serving.  Avocado is a notable fruit that is high in fiber.
  • Include healthy fats into your diet:  A small handful of walnuts or almonds daily can help to lower your cholesterol.
  • Reduce animal products:  Cholesterol is only found in animal products.  However, to lower cholesterol, you do not always have to cut out all meat products.  It would be wise to reduce or eliminate the fattier meats such as beef, lamb, sausage, bacon, etc. while eating moderate amounts of leaner cuts (chicken, turkey, fish).
  • Exercise/weight loss:  Like in many other conditions, obesity is one of the major risk factors of developing high cholesterol. Even moderate exercise (ie walking 30 minutes a day) can help control weight and cholesterol levels.
If you have already been diagnosed with high cholesterol, there are other non-pharmaceutical options out there that can help you manage your cholesterol levels, either in conjunction with your prescription medications or independently.  Make sure to speak with your ND/MD before starting any therapies.

All the best,

Images from www.corbisimages.com

Dr. Cho, ND is a naturopathic doctor based in Pickering, Ontario and Richmond Hill, Ontario.  She maintains a private practice focused in pain management and sports nutrition, in addition to a general family practice at Durham Natural Health Centre.  To learn more about Dr. Cho, book a complimentary 15 minute consult by clicking here.  Not in the Durham Region?  Contact her through AnAvocadoADay@gmail.com to learn about more options.


Anonymous said...

Thanks AAAD and Christine :) very informative

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