Cholesterol or high cholesterol levels in the blood have often been implicated in heart disease. Your doctor will invariably tell you to lower cholesterol levels if they are high or if the HDL-LDL cholesterol is not in balance. However, cholesterol is a lipid that is required in all the cells and is necessary for hormones, cell repair and regeneration and is also critical for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and minerals. You may be surprised to know that 80 percent of the cholesterol needed by the body is actually produced by the liver, which regulates cholesterol levels in the blood and produces and releases more cholesterol as needed and only 20 percent of cholesterol comes from food. So your diet does not contribute that much to the cholesterol levels in the blood. What is stranger is that when your dietary intake of cholesterol goes up, the liver produces less cholesterol and the reverse is true.
The cholesterol numbers
Cholesterol is made up of three different components – HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) which is the good cholesterol; LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) or the bad cholesterol; and triglycerides. In order to read the tests, you should know that if the overall number is 200-239, your cholesterol is on the border. If it is 240 or higher, it is considered high. However, if the HDL (good) cholesterol is below 60, there should be cause for concern. And if your LDL (bad) cholesterol is above 129, you may need treatment.
High cholesterol levels are supposed to leave plaque deposits in the arteries. Over time these, along with other products harden and result in narrowing of the arteries or stenosis. This causes atherosclerosis. Among the disease that have been related to high cholesterol levels and consequent narrowing of the arteries are:
- High blood pressure, since the heart has to pump that much harder
- Blood clots
- Heart disease in the early stages
- Heart attacks that may be mild or serious
- Stroke that may be ischemic or serious
Now any of these can be serious and even life threatening and require medication and lifestyle changes. However, there is a growing school of thought that does not consider cholesterol the villain it is supposed to be.
Actual differences in cholesterol
While your blood tests will only tell you your overall cholesterol levels, they will not give details about the cholesterol. The fact is that there are five different kinds of HDL and LDL. The large particled cholesterol does not harm the body at all. It is only the small particle cholesterol that goes and sticks in the arterial walls.
Research has also thrown up another conundrum – all people who have heart disease do not have high cholesterol levels. In fact at least 50 percent of the people who do not have high cholesterol levels suffered from heart disease.
Yet another view holds that all cholesterol is not that bad for you and that inflammation may be the precursor of heart disease instead of cholesterol. Inflammation may be caused by high fructose corn syrup, sugar and a diet rich in junk, fast and processed foods as well as excess Omega 6 fatty acids.
In fact an older research study that took place between 1966 and 1973 in Australia has recently been reevaluated by the National Institute of Health. The study and showed that consuming polyunsaturated fats (that were thought to be good for heart health) may have lowered cholesterol levels by 13 percent, which would be good, except that they also increased the risk of heart disease. After 39 months, those who reduced saturated fats and increased polyunsaturated fats were more likely to die of heart disease than those who followed a normal diet, showing that the link between cholesterol and heart disease is hazy at best.
A book written by Dr. Stephen Sinatra, a cardiologist and called The Great Cholesterol Myth says that inflammation plays a significant role in heart disease, instead of cholesterol. In his practice he came across people who had cholesterol levels of 150, but had heart disease and others who had levels of 280, but had no heart disease, which confirms the earlier research report.
So what is the role of cholesterol in heart disease and where does that leave you? Whether or not cholesterol plays a role in heart disease, you do need to be make dietary changes and reduce your intake of junk and processed foods, sugar and empty calories. You need to eat healthy and eat more fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates as well as getting your quote of exercise in daily. As for medication, you should follow your doctor’s guidelines, but as an educated consumer.