Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Is Cholesterol the Cause of Heart Disease?

Are Police The Cause of Crimes?

Have you ever noticed that when a crime happens typically police officers show up? That's a good thing right? They are there to do their job and we are glad they show up. We don't think, however, that because they always seem to be at crime scenes, that they are the cause of the crime.

It's interesting though that people associate cholesterol with the cause of heart disease, but saying that is like saying police officers cause crime. Just because they are there does not mean they caused the problem. Have you ever wondered, if cholesterol is the major cause of heart disease, why are so many people on cholesterol-lowering drugs , yet the rate of heart disease has not dropped much? Have you wondered why over half the people who have a heart attack have normal to low levels of cholesterol? Or why certain tests that research prove to be more effective at screening heart disease are not routinely done by your doctor?

To answer these questions, I think it is important that we first understand more about cholesterol. If you watch enough TV, or read enough books or magazines you have probably learned that there is "good" cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol. Really there is no such thing as good cholesterol or bad cholesterol. In fact HDL and LDL are not even cholesterol - they are lipoproteins that carry cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol from our blood to our liver to be stored and LDL carries it from our liver into the blood to the places that are calling for it. This is why they call LDL "bad" cholesterol because it puts more cholesterol into the blood stream. But is LDL bad?

If our levels of LDL ever reached zero we would die. In fact, even if they get too low we will see some major problems from hormonal imbalance like depression to slowed healing. The reason for this lies in the roles of cholesterol.

The three major functions of cholesterol are that:
- it makes up every cell wall in your body
- it is the backbone of all stress hormones and sex hormones(cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, etc) - it helps in healing wounds
As you can see cholesterol plays a major role in our bodies but what role does it play in heart disease?
The steps of heart disease go as follows:
- an artery gets damaged by inflammation, infection or free radicals
- the body starts to heal and repair the damaged artery, including sending cholesterol
- depending on the amount of free radicals in the body, the cholesterol can be oxidized and then a plaque starts to form
As you can see cholesterol actually plays a role in healing the artery. It does not initiate heart disease, the damage to the artery does. So how do you prevent heart disease? You reduce inflammation, infections, and free radicals. How do you do that? By eating foods that reduce inflammation and boosting your immune system (to learn how to do these things check out the article in the month's newsletter titled "Build a Strong Heart"). To learn how much inflammation you have in your body, two of the major markers that can be measured are C-reactive protein or CRP and homocysteine levels. These tests can easily be added to your routine blood tests that the doctor will order to get your cholesterol checked.

But what if my cholesterol is high? First you must understand that total cholesterol is not the best indicator of cholesterol. Looking at HDL, LDL, lipid levels and ratios is more important. I won't go into detail during this article about this but go to to learn more. If your LDL levels are high it's probably because your body is calling for lots of cholesterol to be used either to make hormones, especially stress hormones, or to function in healing. By addressing the root problems you should be able to reduce your cholesterol. Reducing your stress and inflammation will take care of this. If you are wondering if your inflammation is high, just look at your CRP levels or homocysteine levels. Geneticists estimate that about 2% of people have a strictly genetic issue causing high cholesterol. For the rest of the population it is a combination of genes and lifestyle. The best way you can affect your cholesterol levels is through your lifestyle. Remember, though, that high cholesterol is usually a symptom -not a disease. Get rid of the root cause and the symptom, and high LDL cholesterol will go away.

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