April 02, 2016

The truth about cholesterol

Well, here are some facts about LDL and HDL that the vast majority of people may well be surprised to learn:


* LDL and HDL are not types of cholesterol.

* LDL and HDL are lipoproteins that transport cholesterol through your blood circulatory system.  

* LDL stands for Low Density Lipoprotein, and HDL stands for High Density Lipoprotein.  

* LDL is often mistakenly thought of as being bad cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to your arteries.  

* HDL is often mistakenly referred to as good cholesterol because it carries cholesterol away from your arteries and to your liver.  

*LDL and HDL carry the same cholesterol.  


Here are the main points to take away from the facts presented above:   Cholesterol that naturally occurs in animal foods is not harmful to your health. But it can become harmful to your health if it is damaged by exposure to high levels of heat and/or harsh processing techniques.   If you regularly consume damaged cholesterol and foods that are rich in free radicals, you are likely to have significant quantities of damaged cholesterol floating through your circulatory system.   And if you regularly have damaged cholesterol floating around in your blood, then a high LDL level correlates with a higher-than-average risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and a high HDL level correlates with a lower-than-average risk of developing cardiovascular disease.  


In other words, if you have significant amounts of damaged cholesterol in your blood circulation, you don’t want a lot of LDL to be available to carry this cholesterol to your arteries, where the damaged cholesterol can contribute to atherosclerosis, and you do want a lot of HDL available to shuttle damaged cholesterol away from your arteries.   So while it’s true that a high HDL/total cholesterol ratio can reflect a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, what’s most important when it comes to cholesterol and your health is to avoid eating animal foods that have been cooked at high temperatures, since these foods are typically rich in damaged cholesterol.  


A huge amount of research has been worked on in this area, so here are some guidelines for healthy HDL, LDL, Total Cholesterol, and Triglyceride Levels.  


Ideally, it's best to have a blood cholesterol level of over 150 mg/dL (3.9 mmol/L). But if your blood cholesterol level is lower than this, so long as you are eating a nutrient-dense, plant-centred diet and not suffering from any health challenges, it should not present a cause for concern.   Low cholesterol over the long term may lead to depression, increased risk of stroke, and numerous problems related to hormonal imbalances. If you are not getting enough vitamin D from your diet, having low cholesterol may lead to vitamin D deficiency, as sunlight creates vitamin D in your body by acting on cholesterol found in your skin.   In an ideal situation, your HDL/total cholesterol ratio should be above 25%. Generally, the higher this ratio, the better. If this ratio is 10-15 percent or lower, there is an increased risk of eventually experiencing a heart attack. In addition it's best to have a triglyceride/HDL ratio of 2.0 or lower.  


If your HDL/total cholesterol and triglyceride/HDL ratios are in the ranges listed above, and you are eating mainly undamaged cholesterol, having a total cholesterol of more than 200 mg/dL (5.2 mmol/L) most probably isn't a cause for worry. In fact, even people whose genetics cause them to have total cholesterol above 350 mg/dL (9.0 mmol/L) have been shown to have no elevated risk of heart disease as long as their ratios are fine and they stay away from eating damaged cholesterol.   This may seem a little confusing when trying to relate it to the foods you eat, so rather than focusing just on the numbers from your latest blood test, your health will be  best served by:   Ensuring regular intake of a wide variety of nutrient-dense plant foods (vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, and small amounts of nuts and seeds).   Ensuring regular intake of healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, olives, coconuts, organic eggs, and perhaps some cold water fish.   Minimise your intake of animal foods that have been highly processed and/or exposed to high cooking temperatures as this will contain damaged cholesterol.  


Don't forget the obvious: Strive to live a balanced life that includes adequate rest, a good amount of regular physical activity, exposure to sunlight (without getting burned) and fresh air, develop meaningful relationships, and a sense of purpose.