Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On Cholesterol

This will be my second venture back into the blogging world after a brief sabbatical. During the time I was gone I changed a lot of diapers, had another baby, and started a Master's program in Health and Nutrition Education. I thought I'd drop the schooling bit in now, because what I'm about to introduce to you may seem radical...

I had a friend ask me the other day which cholesterol was the good, and which was the bad. I was totally embarrassed to admit that I couldn't remember, and honestly, that I had never known. As I thought about that the rest of the day, I finally realized the reason my mind had never retained that information is because I don't believe there is good and bad cholesterol. I really love cholesterol, and so I thought I'd share my mental ramblings on this sadly misunderstood nutrient.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol fits tidily into the fats and lipids category, and should be revered for its many functions in the human body. Both HDL (high density lipoprotein), and LDL (low density lipoprotein) perform vital functions in the human body, and deficiencies in either are catastrophic in nature. Cholesterol, in times past, was blamed for clogging arteries. I find it poor logic, though, to look at a wound, and blame what we find there for the presence of the wound. We don't blame blood for scratches and cuts. We don't blame bandaids for them either. What is it that causes cholesterol to get stuck in a person's arteries? There are several mechanisms in place, but the primary problems that cause blockages in arteries are in fact poor blood sugar metabolism, which cause inflammation i.e. over consumption of carbohydrates (this can include fruit for particularly sick people) and resultant damages on a cellular level. Google this, "cholesterol patches damaged arteries" -- it's not really a secret.

Further, check out all cholesterol does for you (other than patch damaged arteries):

  • All cell membranes in the human body are made sturdy by a combination of cholesterol and saturated fat. So that pretty much covers everything your body does. Let's end there... Just kidding, there's more.
  • All human sex hormones are a break down of cholesterol. (That link is a Chris Masterjohn link. If you don't know of him, he's a smarty.) A  cholesterol deficiency can lead to a deficiency in these, which would wreak havoc on more or less all of your systems -- because our bodies function as a whole organism. You cannot experience degradation in one system alone. To name just a few of your systems that would struggle due to imbalance in these hormones, though: reproductive system (duh), pulmonary system, cardiovascular system, adrenal system, and... more. 
  • Many other hormones are also made from cholesterol, such as cortisol, the stress hormone, and aldosterone, which regulates mineral absorption.
  • Cholesterol aids in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins K, D, E, and A. Your body can even make vitamin D out of cholesterol. It's kind of this everywhere fix-it guy.
  • Your body uses cholesterol to make bile. Bile is a green, viscous liquid made in the liver, which aids in the digestion of fat.
  • It also aids in the absorption of minerals.
  • For all the women reading this, morning sickness has been linked to a cholesterol deficiency, because it is linked to hormonal imbalances, bile production, and mineral absorption. (Magnesium is a big culprit here. Magnesium can also make you smell better when you sweat. That's fodder for a different post, though.)

Where do you get it? Where can you get it? Where should you get it?

Your body makes cholesterol in your skin in the same sort of fashion as it make vitamin D. Your body can also make cholesterol out of carbohydrates, in a similar fashion it can manufacture saturated fats from carbohydrates. Caution friends, this is far from ideal. In the absence of sun, and dietary cholesterol (or saturated fats, as it were) your body will crave carbs so that it can manufacture these other building blocks. This adds an extra step, and we know that the over consumption of carbohydrates: 1. depletes our bodies of minerals, 2. injures our bodies on both a large and small scale.

It is also important to note, the cholesterol made by your skin when exposed to the sun is in a different form than dietary cholesterol, (it is sulfated, or attached to a sulfur atom) and serves different functions in the human body than the dietary form. Dietary cholesterol is also important, because your body doesn't make the sort you get from foods. Your body, when exposed to optimal amounts of sun, will make about 98% of your cholesterol! That is amazing, and also scary considering how much time we all spend inside, and all of the things we have heard about sparing our skin sun exposure...

Just to make this slightly more controversial, cholesterol lowering drugs inhibit the human body from making cholesterol. That's right folks. Even though there is this, and this we are still giving statin drugs to the aging... even though low cholesterol is linked to double the mortality rate than high cholesterol. It is also linked to depression, suicidal thoughts, and violent behaviors.

The best dietary sources for cholesterol are:

  • Shrimp
  • Lobster
  • Eggs
  • Liver
  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Chicken, with the skin
  • Cheese
  • Full fat milk
  • Cream
  • Butter
  • Human milk ("The cholesterol in human milk supplies an infant with close to six times the amount most adults consume from their food." -- Mary Enig PhD, and world renowned lipids expert.)

So basically, google "high cholesterol foods", and eat those. Provided they are real, whole foods. Avoid snack foods like tater chips.

Interesting articles to read on the subject. Warning: sometimes Masterjohn can be a little dry...

Dr. Chris Masterjohn (Read this especially if you fear I'm leading you down the path of heart disease.)
Dr. Mary Enig on breastmilk composition.

Wikipedia: Cholesterol (I know guys, Wikipedia. It actually does have some good information these days.)


  1. This is such good news for my love of a good cheeseburger!!!

  2. Thank you for this informative overview, Melissa! I look forward to reading the links you shared. It's good to see some of these truths coming to light, however slow the progress. Even some mainstream media outlets are starting to catch on, and many articles and books are being written. There is so much about the body we have yet to understand. I hope that collectively (esp. in our country) we can be open-minded as answers change.

    Question. There are many reasons to source animal products carefully, but do you know how diet, treatment, or environment might affect the health of an animal's cholesterol, and thereby, our health?

    If I remember right, Catherine Shanahan, MD has some helpful info on cholesterol in her books as well.

    1. I have not ever seen a study that commented on the quality of cholesterol from grass fed animals specifically. There are several studies that clearly show differences in the quality of fat between grass fed, and CAFO animals. Grass fed being far superior, and less chemically laden, (chemicals are stored in fatty deposits in animals). As cholesterol and fats are in the same chemical grouping, I feel one could reasonably expect the same types of positive changes to be found in relation to cholesterol.