Donna Burgoyne, BNatMed, NZRGON
Cholesterol, Heart Disease and Your Health
Cholesterol is an important substance in every cell of the body; without cholesterol the body would die. In particular, it is vital for healthy mood balance and brain function, production of oestrogen, testosterone and adrenal hormones, and healthy muscles. Cholesterol is also needed for the synthesis of Vitamin D and for the production of bile (which digests fat). Every single cell of the 50 trillion in the body have a cholesterol-containing cell membrane which needs cholesterol to work properly.
Cholesterol is so important, our bodies make it! Contrary to popular belief, most of our cholesterol is manufactured in the liver; only a small amount is absorbed from our food. Therefore the amount of cholesterol in your blood has very little to do with the amount in your diet.
Doesn’t Cholesterol Clog Arteries and Cause Heart Disease?
A growing group of people, including doctors and cardiologists are rejecting the ‘cholesterol causes heart disease’ hypothesis. It has never been proven – it is only a hypothesis. What science has proven, however, is that chronic inflammation damages arteries. Cholesterol only accumulates in arteries (to repair the damage) in the presence of chronic inflammation. Therefore we should be more concerned about reducing inflammatory processes in our bodies than our cholesterol levels.
Low levels of cholesterol may actually be harmful, for women especially. Research has shown post-menopausal women typically have higher than average cholesterol levels, and this appears to be protective against heart disease.
Blood Test Results – What do they mean?
When you get a test for cholesterol, it is called a ‘Lipid Profile’, and it also measures triglyceride levels, LDL and HDL (these are different forms of fat transporters in the blood). These all should be considered in relationship with each other and your overall health. The triglyceride level is more important than cholesterol, as this measures the total fat in the body; ideally this should not be too high.
What are Statins?
Statins are cholesterol-lowering drugs. A phenomenal 1,750,000 prescriptions for statins were made in New Zealand in 2012 at a cost of $76.5 million that year! More prescription money was spent on statins than any other class of medicine. Worldwide it is a multibillion-dollar industry.
Stains have a long list of serious side-effects and anyone taking them should make an informed decision to do so. Stains block the synthesis of cholesterol, but also other important metabolic pathways are affected. Common side effects are muscle aches and weakness, and less commonly, tearing and breakdown of muscle tissue which, in rare cases leads to renal failure. Also listed are joint pain, insomnia, headache, dizziness, blurred vision, deafness, fatigue, erectile dysfunction, stroke and raised liver enzymes.
Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a compound used in cellular energy production, most highly concentrated in heart muscle, but also needed in skeletal muscle. Statins block the production of Co-Q10, and adversely affect the ability of the muscles to work effectively. Anyone taking statins should also take a good quality CoQ10 supplement.
Heart Health Naturally
Taking control of your health through diet, exercise and stress-reduction will reduce inflammation and not only benefit your heart health, but increase your energy and vitality as well.
- Processed and takeaway food contains many trans-fats, salt and sugar which contribute to inflammation – these are the most important foods to avoid.
- Increase the fresh fruit and vegetables in your daily intake; these are full of antioxidants and phytochemicals which your cells will love.
- Drink lots of water and less coffee and less alcohol, and leave fizzy drinks at the supermarket.
- Eat more chicken and oily fish and less red meat – ideally organic. And eggs are ok!
- Switch your white flour to wholegrains and keep the sugar out of it (choose nutrient-dense honey, agave or maple syrup in small amounts instead!)
What Fats are Best?
Essential fatty acids are what our bodies need from our food. These are best obtained from extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocadoes, tahini, raw nuts and nut oils. Know where your oils come from as they can be adulterated. Forget the cheap ‘salad oil’ and ‘vegetable oils’ and margarines – these are the trans-fat culprits! Use good old fashioned butter in small amounts.
What should I do if I have or am at risk of Heart Disease?
Do not stop taking any medication without discussing this first with your doctor. See a naturopath for support to improve your cardiovascular health and get an individual nutrition, exercise and stress-reduction plan. There are herbs and supplements that can support the cardiovascular system, and these should be prescribed by a qualified naturopath/herbalist. If you are taking a stain, your naturopath can advise you about taking a good quality CoQ10 supplement.
References and further reading:
Bowden, J & Sinatra, S. (2012). The great cholesterol myth: Why lowering cholesterol won’t prevent heart disease – and the statin-free plan that will. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press.
Medsafe (2013). Lipitor Datasheet –atorvastatin calcium. Retrieved from http://www.medsafe.govt.nz/profs/datasheet/l/lipitortab.pdf
Moore, J. & Westman, E. (2013). Cholesterol clarity: What the HDL is wrong with my numbers? Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing.
Pharmaceutical Management Agency (2012). Annual review 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.pharmac.health.nz/assets/annual-review-2012.pdf