If someone asked you ‘what exactly is cholesterol? Could you confidently answer them? More than 1 in 3 Australians and Americans suffer from high cholesterol but many of us don’t really know what is it and how it works. This post will explain in layman’s terms what cholesterol is and how it directly affects your health.
What is cholesterol?
Think of cholesterol as the repair kit for our arteries. The inner lining of our arties needs to be super smooth so that blood can easily flow through it, but sometimes we get little nicks from wear and tear such as nicotine, high blood pressure, stress or too much fat in the diet. Think of it like a few tiles coming off the bottom of a swimming pool. Cholesterol acts as the grout to fill these holes and prevent further damage. The problem is one type of cholesterol fixes these nicks beautifully whilst the other does such a patchy job that it makes the arteries even more rough and congested.
What is LDL and HDL cholesterol?
There are 2 types of cholesterol LDL (think L for lousy cholesterol) and HDL (think H for healthy cholesterol)
LDL or low-density lipoproteins (ie the lousy one) is the damaging kind. It tries to repair the nicks in your artery walls but ends up making them more blocked. This is the dangerous, heart attack inducing cholesterol. Factors that increase the presence of LDLs is a diet high in saturated fat and trans fats (i.e. fats that are hard at room temperature like butter), high blood pressure, lack of exercise and hereditary factors.
HDL or high-density lipoproteins on the other hand is the healthy cholesterol. It helps to break up and clear out the LDLs as well as lubricating our arteries and neatly repairing the nicks. Factors that increase the presence of HDLs is a diet high in monounsaturated fats such as omega 3 and 6 (from fish), olive oil, avocados, nuts (especially walnuts).Polyunsaturated fats also help to lower the LDLs, monounsaturated seems to be more favored. Polyunsaturated are mostly vegetable fats for example vegetable oils, sesame oils and nuts (especially pine nuts and sunflower seeds) . The more HDLs in your system, means there will be less damage from LDLs.
The domino effect of high Cholesterol
When your LDLs become excessive (from eating too much saturated fat, or just eating too much food and not exercising), your arteries literally get clogged with the messy grout. But this also means blood works its way into the inner layers of your arteries (just like a pool will start to leak if the tiles aren’t fixed) which triggers a nasty immune response from the body, causing white blood cells to step in and create a pretty hostile environment that promotes inflammation. This is known atherosclerosis.
The toxins created by these white blood cells creates more inflammation, which gets eaten up by scavenger cells which causes blister-like substances on the artery walls creating even more rough surface and blockage.
This reaction escalates as the body senses something is wrong and the weakened part of the artery develops plaque, and if this plaque ruptures then things aren’t looking too crash hot.
Sticky blood platelets are attracted to these rough patchy blisters on the artery walls, and when the platelets attach to the blisters clots develop. This cycle continues and escalates meaning the one original little nick in the artery wall is now an inflamed clotting mess.
Eventually (and in some cases this whole process can be as short as 60 seconds) the artery ruptures or shuts off, so blood can’t get to the heart to nourish it.
Bingo, heart attack! Well this is the worst case scenario. Depending on where in the body the blockage occurs other effects could be less life threatening such as impotence, stroke, memory loss, wrinkled skin and many other issues, none of which are very nice.
What is the new research saying?
There is evidence out now that suggests we should be focusing on ways to increase our HDL levels rather than decreasing our LDLs. We should soon be seeing a new wave of drugs on the market designed to supercharge our HDLs to help fight the destructive LDLs. This supercharged HDL (called apo-1a-milano) was discovered in a northern Italian village where villagers had unusually low HDLs, but the small amounts they did have were far more effective at fighting LDLs. These villagers should have been riddled with coronary issues but they were very healthy because of these super charged HDLs.
What can we do the reduce LDLs and Promote HDLs?
- Steer clear of saturated and trans fats: Get no more than 4grams of saturated fat in each meal. That is animal fats, hard at room temperature found in meat and dairy. Avoid trans fats like the plague. You will find them in buttered popcorn, biscuits, bought cakes, doughnuts, chips, and some margarines. Basically anything requiring a longer shelf life will undoubtedly have trans fats in it
- Steer clear of these LDL dense foods: all saturated fats (eg butter, animal fats found in meat, especially organ meat, and full fat dairy), trans fats (found in most fast food outlets, biscuits, cakes, and most things requiring a long shelf life). Oyster have recently been given the all clear, contrary to older research.
- Consume mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats: About 80% of the fat you eat should come from these. Extra virgin olive oil, fish, avocados, and walnuts are great sources.
- Get moving: Minimum of 30minutes per day every day, mix up cardiovascular with resistance work.
- Taking vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): 300mg per day has been shown to decrease LDL and raise HDL with no side effects noted.
- Naicin supplement: You can get it over the counter or by prescription. People with liver or kidney issues should seek medical advice first. The recommended dose is 100mg four times per day which has been shown to raise HDLs.
- One alcoholic drink per night: Now this doesn’t mean start drinking when you ordinarily wouldn’t, it means go easy and drink in moderation. It also doesn’t mean you can save all your seven drinking credits and down them on a Friday night. Your HDLs won’t be very happy about that, nor will your liver!
- Substitute your carbs with protein or monounsaturated fats: Watch you don’t blow your calories out by adding more fat than the eliminated carbs (that’s where calorie counting comes in), but try to minimize carbs from lunchtime onwards. For example instead of a chicken sandwich, try a chicken salad sprinkled with walnuts or sliced avocado. The extra protein and fat will make the salad much more satisfying.
- Take Aspirin daily: 162mg per day is the recommended amount to help make the platelets less sticky and decreases inflammation in the arteries. Studies have shown that taking aspirin twice per day reduces the risk of heart attacks or strokes from 13 – 36%. If it gives you gas, try drinking a glass of warm water before and after taking the aspirin.
So there you have it! Now when someone asks you at a party what exactly cholesterol is, fill up their glass, make sure they are sitting comfortably because you are going to be talking for quite a while…!
Do you or anyone you know have high cholesterol? What has helped in your experience with keeping your LDLs down? Are you going to think twice next time you order fries with that dripping burger???
Watch this 3 minute animation/explanation of cholesterol build up – fascinating!