We hear about cholesterol and how it leads to cardiovascular disease and now cancer. People have latched on to that and focused on reducing “cholesterol” levels using a frantic all-fat-is-bad mantra.
Let’s go through this step by step so we can see what “cholesterol” really is and what is optimal for your health.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a general term for different varieties of a fat-like substance in your body. Different forms of cholesterol are responsible for different bodily functions.
Your liver produces and transforms cholesterol and you get it from foods you eat.
Cholesterol is found in every cell of the body and travels through the bloodstream in packets called lipoprotein: protein on the outside and fat (lipo) on the inside, like a chocolate-covered caramel.
The two forms of cholesterol that get the most press are high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the “good” cholesterol) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol).
Judgements aside, your body needs both.
Balance between the two is the key to avoid detrimental affects of either. LDL has been labelled the “bad” cholesterol because it’s been found to lead to heart disease if the balance between it and HDL is out of whack with a consistently much higher level of LDL.
When there is an overabundance of LDL, it is carried around the body more easily because it’s lighter (i.e., less dense). The HDL, therefore, doesn’t get properly distributed. As a matter of fact, HDL is necessary to keep LDL in check.
What does cholesterol do?
- Used in the production of hormones like cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone
- Makes vitamin D
- Is used by the liver to make bile that is used in digestion
- Forms and maintains cell membranes, serving as conduits for communication and electrical conductivity
- Used in the growth and maintenance of the brain (which is mostly fat)
Low levels of cholesterol throw everything off and can make you feel tired and sluggish.
What does high cholesterol do?
When LDL is too high, it sticks to the interior artery walls, reducing blood flow, and causing the heart to work harder than it should have to.
Without enough HDL–which removes LDL from the arteries–LDL accumulates, forming plaque. If arteries get too clogged–BAM–heart attack (or stroke) due to inadequate blood flow.
HDL works in synergy with LDL to balance cholesterol levels in the body. 
- LDL delivers cholesterol to cells in the body.
- HDL is involved in reverse cholesterol transport.
Why is low cholesterol bad?
In a nutshell, if cholesterol levels are too low, all the things it’s supposed to do don’t get done:
- Reduced libido
- Low vitamin D
- Liver and digestive issues
- Mood changes and fatigue
- Memory loss, a feeling of “foggy” brain, and increased risk of neurodegenerative disease
Is there an optimal level of cholesterol?
Yes and no.
Every person’s metabolism is different. One number may be high for one but normal (and healthy) for another–there is a genetic component to your body’s chemistry.
Consider ranges rather than numbers.
There are the LDL and HDL levels and then there is the total cholesterol level. A balance within a healthy range is what you’re trying to achieve. Generally speaking:
- LDL levels above 100 correlate to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease
- Total cholesterol levels (which includes LDL, HDL, VLDL [very low-density lipoprotein], and triglycerides) above 200 (mg/dL) indicate higher risk of cardiovascular disease
- The optimal range for most people for LDL is 65-80
- The optimal range for most people for total cholesterol is 125-165
The problem with the increasing rates of heart disease in North America isn’t due to “bad” cholesterol, per se.
It’s the result of lifestyle and diet.
A sedentary person who eats the chemicals and refined sugar in processed foods runs an exponentially higher risk of poisoning the heart and circulatory system than someone who is moderately active and eats whole, fresh, chemical-free food.
Why did this happen?
When fats and cholesterol were demonized in the ’70s and ’80s, people cut fats out of their diets. But they had to eat something.
So they ate more carbohydrates.
It’s the extra sugar (carbohydrates are basically different forms of sugar) that is causing the rise in the biggest killers in America: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Reducing the amount of carbohydrates in favor of more proteins and healthy fats in your diet will naturally bring your cholesterol levels down without pharmaceuticals.
For added impact, cooked tomatoes especially have been found to be as effective as statin drugs in reducing LDL cholesterol. Cinnamon reduces both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Healthy fats found in avocados, coconut oil, and fish in addition to proteins in lean meats, eggs, quinoa, and legumes will help to even out cholesterol.
Eat smart and feel well.