I’m sure you’ve been told to watch your cholesterol, especially that sneaky LDL. LDL stands for Low Density Lipoprotein, and it’s been demonized (with some justice) since the late 1960s. In fact, when I was first studying the human body and learning what blood values meant, I memorized LDL as Low-down Dirty Lipid.
But just how concerned do we need to be about cholesterol and LDL?
Here’s the take-it-to-the-bank truth. Whatever you may have heard, cholesterol is a good thing.
– It makes our precious sex and steroid hormones
– Our cells depend on it to stay intact, keeping the inside and outside fluids where they belong
– It’s required making vital Vitamin D
– It’s essential for our brain and spinal nerves to function
– It plays a role in digesting certain vitamins
– AND it dampens inflammation
LDL is primarily a carrier protein. Its job is to give cholesterol a ride from the liver (where the bulk of cholesterol is made) to wherever it needs to go in the body. It also has a role in preventing toxins from getting out of control.
HDL (high density lipoprotein) is the return part of the ticket: it transports cholesterol back to the liver for re-processing.
So what’s the problem? Lifestyle-driven inflammation, with all the usual suspects in the line-up, and a high sugar diet leading the pack. Sugar is probably the most addictive and inflammatory substance on the planet. The greater the level of overall inflammation, the more the body has to struggle to contain it. When inflammation is high, total cholesterol will go up.
There are some other factors we’ll look at, but first let’s talk about the relationship of total cholesterol, LDL and HDL. I’m going to use functional lab range numbers, which are actually more generous on the top end than the lab ranges you may have seen, and are widely accepted as solid science.
Let’s say your total cholesterol is X. Now subtract 100 from X. That should be your LDL number, or close to it. And your HDL should be at least 50–60.
Example One: Total cholesterol = 230, LDL = 125, HDL = 60
Although the Total cholesterol and LDL are out of the standard lab range, they are in the functional ranges and the ratio is appropriate
Example Two: Total cholesterol = 200, LDL = 125, HDL = 50
Even though the Total cholesterol is in the standard lab range, the ratio to LDL is concerning and HDL is very low. So we ask, why is this happening?
In Example Two, LDL is high in relation to total cholesterol, so yes, there’s an issue here that definitely needs to be addressed. But Example One might be a situation where a statin would be prescribed to bring down the numbers. Statins are anti-inflammatory, so the numbers will go down.
But here’s the thing: statins don’t do anything about what was driving inflammation in the first place. Plus statins disrupt the way your cells create energy. and can damage your liver.
That’s a pretty high price to pay for a partial, short term solution. It’s not quite like using a pile driver when all you really needed was a hammer, but it’s on that spectrum.
Remember when I mentioned that cholesterol plays a role in maintaining cell wall integrity? That’s every single cell, by the way. If the junctions between neighboring cells start to develop gaps, and the cell wall gets “leaky”, you’re going to see what should be inside the cell spilling out — and vice versa.
It’s like the fence around your yard: if it’s missing a few stakes here and there, your normally well-behaved dog goes AWOL, and your neighbor’s riffraff dog gets in and pees on your tender tomato seedlings.
When we have leaky cells, a steady cascade of bad things start to happen and inflammation markers are going to rise. And this is where LDL gets to be a real problem. Because it’s small (and Very Low Density Lipoprotein — VLDL — is even smaller), it can go places it shouldn’t and generally create a hot mess.
Think of LDL as your normally well-behaved dog: when she gets loose, she starts behaving like your neighbor’s riffraff dog.
In fact, LDL can get “sticky”, which makes it snag on your arterial walls, forming plaques (think of these as bottlenecks for blood flow). This is linked to both inflammation and insulin resistance (a topic for another day, but driven by sugar consumption).
It’s pretty clear that the more inflamed your body gets, the more inflamed it’s going to get. And your cholesterol numbers could well go haywire, prompting the suggestion that you take a statin… despite their well-known and extremely negative aspects.
But let’s back up a minute. What are the fire-starters for inflammation in the first place? We’re all familiar with the lifestyle prescriptions: get more exercise, eat a healthy diet, manage stress, etc.
And that is all true, no question at all.
But here’s an under-appreciated fact for you: impaired digestion and unstable blood sugar are HUGE drivers of inflammation. I am far from alone in thinking that they are far more important for your health than your cholesterol numbers. And they can be harder to address than you might think.
I’m going to leave digestive issues aside (please see greatriverchiro.com for more information), but let’s take a high level look at triglycerides.
The “other” blood fat, triglyceride levels go up if you eat a diet high in excess starch and sugars. Triglycerides, unlike cholesterol, are a primary risk for cardiovascular disease. According to research at Harvard University, published in the journal Circulation, you should ideally have LOW triglycerides and HIGH HDL.
If that’s the case, and your total cholesterol and LDL are in the ratio seen in Example One, bravo you! Your risk of having a heart attack or stroke is significantly less than average. Versus the much more common scenario of having low cholesterol and high triglycerides. In my opinion, that is a recipe for a heart attack or stroke, plus increasing your risk of early cognitive decline.
How, you may ask, can you increase your HDL count? The answer, my friend, is don’t be afraid of healthy saturated fats. To give you just one example, coconuts and coconut oil are top of the list when it comes to foods high in saturated fat — and, yet, a diet traditionally high in coconut oil is associated with very low rates of heart disease and stroke.
I’m not suggesting you consume excessive amounts of saturated fats (for one thing, they are fattening), but please keep this in mind: saturated fats are much healthier for you than sugars and vegetable oils (excluding, of course, olive and palm oil).
Here are just a few of the positives that saturated fats offer.
– They raise HDL, and lower LDL
– They lower blood levels of lipoprotein (a); that’s the blood marker that got trans fats a deservedly bad rap
– Saturated fatty acids play multiple roles in the human body, from helping calcium model healthy bones to helping the immune system fight off viruses and bacteria.
Here’ s a nice takeaway to close with. Within the context of a Mediterranean-style diet, saturated fats have a healthy and delicious role to play in your diet. And that is very good news for your taste buds, your waistline, and your heart.
Finally, don’t forget that we offer a comparative analysis of annual blood work to our patients, so you can see where your markers are in the functional or optimal ranges (vs the standard lab ranges). That helps you catch problems early: always a win!
If you’d like to review your health from a functional perspective, please don’t hesitate to reach out; we are here to serve.