Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and even worldwide. Medical professionals use the term heart disease to describe several conditions; however, many of these conditions relate to the buildup of plaque in the walls of arteries. In honor of National Cholesterol Education month, let’s discuss one of the largest factors to cardiovascular and brain health: Cholesterol.
Also known as hypercholesterolemia, high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. More than 100 million Americans, 20 years or older, have cholesterol levels above healthy levels: 200 mg/dL. Of that number, 35 million have levels of 240mg/dL or higher (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The worst part about these statistics is that they’re preventable and even reversible. To put it simply, poor diets and sedentary lifestyles are killing us.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all cells of the body and many foods. We do need it, as it’s necessary for the creation of vitamin D, hormones, and bile salts that break down carbs, fats, and proteins (Edwards). Even your brain needs cholesterol because it helps create neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. So what’s the problem? We know this answer well: Even your cholesterol needs balance.
HDL vs. LDL
There are two main types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Lipoproteins are made of fat and proteins. Cholesterol moves through the body while inside lipoproteins. Both HDL and LDL cholesterols shuttle fats to and from cells. To say “good” and “bad” isn’t really a fair assessment. They are simply two different sizes: high-density and low-density.
HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein): the “good cholesterol” is larger particles that transport cholesterol from bodily tissue to the liver to be expelled from the body or reused. HDL helps rid the body of excess cholesterol so it’s less likely to end up in the arteries.
LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein): the “bad cholesterol” is smaller particles that take cholesterol to the arteries, where it could collect in the artery walls if there is too much of it. Too much cholesterol in the arteries may lead to a buildup of plaque known as atherosclerosis. This can increase the risk of blood clots in the arteries. If a blood clot breaks away and blocks an artery in the heart or brain, this might result in a stroke or heart attack.
Don’t Forget Triglycerides! Triglycerides are another type of fat (lipid) that circulate in the blood. While cholesterol is used to build cells and certain hormones, triglycerides store unused calories and provide the body with energy. High triglycerides may contribute to hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery walls (arteriosclerosis), which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. Extremely high triglycerides can also cause acute inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
Children & Adolescents with High Cholesterol
Yes, that can and does happen. Since the risk for high cholesterol increases with a poor diet and weight/obesity, overweight children with a poor diet are no exception. In the US, 20% of children ages 12-19 have at least one abnormal lipid level (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). If a child is overweight/obese or if they have a poor diet, they should have their cholesterol checked regularly.
Low Cholesterol & the Brain Connection
Most of the time, we only hear about high cholesterol, but what happens when it dips too low? Yes, that is a thing and it is directly associated with cognitive decline. While your brain makes up about 2-3% of your total body weight, 25% of the cholesterol in your body is found in your brain, where it plays a significant role in membrane function (Perlmutter). So, yes, you want it in there. When the overall total cholesterol sinks below 150, there is a likely chance for brain atrophy, or cerebral atrophy — the loss of brain cells called neurons. It basically destroys the connections that help brain cells communicate (Bredesen). So, while we’re all watching spiking cholesterol levels for cardiovascular issues, we need to also be mindful of plummeting levels for brain issues.
Tips to Balance Cholesterol
First, Calm Down!
Stress is a major factor in high cholesterol. Life can be overwhelming. I do know. Believe me. There are several ways to calm your nerves like yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, and therapy. You should be doing one or most of these practices daily.
Essential Oils for Cholesterol and Stress:
Lavender essential oil can lower cholesterol levels because it decreases emotional stress. Cypress oil can lower cholesterol because it improves circulation and rosemary oil can reduce cholesterol because of its antioxidant properties and it is cardio supportive.
Supplements that Support Cholesterol:
- Bergamot: Reduces cholesterol levels; supports cardiovascular health; maintains healthy arteries; and metabolizes fat
- Fish Oil: Decreases risk of heart disease and stroke; lowers levels of triglycerides or fats in the blood
Avoid (increase LDL and lower HDL):
There are many surprising foods that contain cholesterol. The good news is that many of them can be consumed in moderation. Foods like chicken, fish, and full-fat cheeses are fine. Life is about balance. On the other hand, you need to leave the food that causes weight gain and inflammation at the store. Those foods only increase LDL and lower HDL. Here are just a few of the common foods that do the most damage:
- Chips and other processed/packaged foods
- Oils loaded with trans fats (canola, vegetable, and soy)
- Sugary treats like cookies and candy
- Bacon and other processed meats, like sausage, bologna, salami, and hot dogs
- Milk and other conventional dairy products
- Refined grains and carbohydrates like bread, tortillas, bagels, and pasta.
Eat (foods that increase HDL and lower LDL):
- Organic grass-fed beef, for its lower levels of unhealthy fats and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Organic dark chocolate (limited!) has shown to lower cholesterol in clinical trials. Again, all good things come with BALANCE.
- A glass of organic red wine (limited!) has shown to lower stress and therefore lower LDL levels. You know what I’m going to say: BALANCE.
The Egg Debate:
They’re bad for you—no, wait! They’re good. Oops, we think they’re bad…no good. Which is it? Should you eat those eggs or not? Listen, there are plenty of health benefits that come from eating eggs. Don’t stop. Yes, a majority of dietary cholesterol in the U.S. comes from eggs. HOWEVER, research shows that eggs have very little effect on LDL (bad) levels. They might even increase HDL (good) levels. And don’t skip out on those yolks! Egg yolks are among the most concentrated sources of choline, which is an important micronutrient that your body uses to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and memory. Remember the brain connection? Don’t forget that (Ha! See what I did there?). Consume away!
For crying out loud, STOP SMOKING:
Lung cancer isn’t the only thing looming over a smoker’s head. Smoking lowers HDL (good) levels and increases LDL (bad) levels, which only increases the risk for heart disease. Put it out and walk away.
A sedentary lifestyle is a huge risk for heart disease. Protect your heart and get involved in a daily, light to medium intensity aerobic practice. This ranges from a nice walk every day to a light jog. It could be daily yoga or a good bike ride. You know what your body can and cannot handle. Start where you can. Get off the couch and move. Think: the more you do the higher your HDL (good) levels. Fatigued? Something isn’t right. We can help with that too!
Today, a shocking 49.2% of people over 65 take cholesterol-lowering medications (Edwards). The saddest part about that number isn’t even the number itself, but how many of those people never should have been prescribed it in the first place. They only needed to make one or two adjustments to their diet or lifestyle. While most people can lower their cholesterol naturally, there are some who need to be on medications while they correct the problem. Please note that you are not healthy when you rely on medication to adjust your cholesterol levels. Medications only cover up the symptoms. It’s not a fix—the underlying problems are still there.
*We at Forum Health Clarkston will never tell you to stop taking your medications; that is between you and your primary care physician. Our goal is to give your body the right environment to heal itself.
Still Unsure? Get Checked!
Adults 20 years and older should have their cholesterol checked at least every five years. A simple blood test called a lipoprotein profile can measure total cholesterol levels: LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. This is what “Conventional Medicine” uses to assess levels:
- Below 200 mg/dL — Desirable
- 200–239 mg/dL — Borderline high
- 240 mg/dL and above — High
LDL Ranges (Low-Density Lipoprotein, “Bad Cholesterol”)
- Below 70 mg/dL — Ideal for people at very high risk of heart disease
- Below 100 mg/dL — Ideal for people at risk of heart disease
- 100–129 mg/dL — Near ideal
- 130–159 mg/dL — Borderline high
- 160–189 mg/dL — High
- 190 mg/dL and above — Very high
HDL Ranges (High-Density Lipoprotein, “Good Cholesterol”)
- Below 40 mg/dL (men); below 50 mg/dL (women) — Poor
- 50–59 mg/dL — Better
- 60 mg/dL and above — Best
- Below 150 mg/dL — Desirable
- 150–199 mg/dL — Borderline high
- 200–499 mg/dL — High
- 500 mg/dL and above — Very high
But What If…
Hear me out—what if we focused more on ratios when monitoring cholesterol health? I found a helpful article from Dr. Axe that has an easy way to calculate where you might fall. This requires math, so if you’re bad with numbers (like me!) maybe do it a few times to make sure you’re right. Or, maybe, ask a mathematically blessed friend to help—like I did.
- HDL to LDL Ratio: You want to have one HDL particle to every 2.5 LDL particles (1:2.5). A ratio of 1:6 or higher means you need to make some changes. A ratio of 1:10 or higher is scary—you are dangerously unhealthy.
- Another way to calculate where you might fall is to multiply your HDL number by 2.5. If the result is the same or higher than your LDL number, then you’re in a good range.
There’s a reason cholesterol is so problematic and that’s really because there aren’t any outward signs. An unhealthy lifestyle is cause enough to have your cholesterol checked regularly. When left unresolved, high cholesterol can and usually does increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, while cholesterol that is too low will affect brain function. At Forum Health Clarkston, we can help you balance your cholesterol and maintain optimal levels to lead you into a long, healthy future. Give us a call today to get started: 248-625-5143
Forum Health Clarkston
7300 Dixie Hwy. Ste. 500
Clarkston, MI 48346
Bredesen, Dale (2017), The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019), “September is National Cholesterol Education Month,” CDC.Gov.
Edwards, Rebekah (2018), “7 Ways to Achieve Normal Cholesterol Levels (6 of Which are Natural),” Dr. Axe.
Perlmutter, David MD (2013), “Your Brain Needs Cholesterol,” Empowering Neurologist.
Ruggeri, Christine (2017), “7 High-Cholesterol Foods to Avoid (Plus 3 to Eat),” Dr. Axe.