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The Cholesterol Myth

Brooke Huffman, ND

No doubt you've heard a lot of hype about cholesterol, be it your own, a loved one's or in the news. There's the "good" kind, the "bad" kind and a range of ways to address it if it gets too high. But did you ever think there may be a purpose for cholesterol and a reason it might get too high? For that matter, what level is too high and when should you turn to treatment? Let's tackle some of these boggling questions.

For starters, let's catch you up on some facts. It's important to understand that most of the cholesterol in your body is made by your body: mainly by the liver but a little is also made elsewhere. Estimates vary but it seems we make about 85% of our total cholesterol; only about 15% comes from the food we eat. Whenever we eat meat or animal products, we add to our cholesterol levels. Plants do not make cholesterol to any significant degree.

Cholesterol is an important part of every cell in your body as it is a component of the cell's membrane. In addition to this, is also used in the production of bile which is used to help you breakdown fats and absorb vitamins A, D, E and K from your diet. Cholesterol is used to make vitamin D as well as all steroid hormones. Examples of steroid hormones include estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, cortisol and DHEA. Cholesterol is actually the backbone for all these hormones; without cholesterol they would not exist.

When there's too much cholesterol in the blood, it begins to collect on the inside linings of your blood vessels. When this layer of cholesterol hardens into plaques it's known as atherosclerosis, a condition which can lead to strokes and heart disease. The low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is "bad" cholesterol because it is more likely to lead to these plaques forming. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is the "good" cholesterol because it seems to remove the plaques of LDL inside arteries, actually "cleaning" the arteries as it moves through the bloodstream.

In addition to the uses of cholesterol we've already discussed, it has another important role. Cholesterol acts as a lubricant of sorts when there is a high level of inflammation in the body. In this way it is important to understand that cholesterol is not the problem itself: rather, high cholesterol is the body's response to inflammation and points at a problem. By treating just the cholesterol, you reduce the body's ability to protect itself without addressing the cause. Think of cholesterol as the fireman responding to a fire. You would not address the issue of too many fires by getting rid of firemen, would you?

If you have high cholesterol, talk to your naturopathic doctor about your options for addressing the cause.