Over the past two decades, high cholesterol levels have become a major source of concern with regards to heart disease. According to current medical recommendations, overall blood cholesterol should be no greater than 200. Fifteen years ago, the recommendation was to keep it under 300, but doctors now believe the lower, the better. However, in the prevention of heart attacks, keeping serum cholesterol in check may only be part of the solution, since there are an equal number of heart attacks in those with low cholesterol as those with high cholesterol.
The ratio of HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol) is also important because HDL attaches to LDL and shuttles it out of the blood stream before it can attach to artery walls. HDL levels above 50 are desirable.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is made in the liver and is necessary in the production of every cell in the body. Our brains are made up almost entirely from cholesterol. In fact, without cholesterol, the human body couldn’t survive. So, why is it a problem then? Well, the current science tells us that too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. When the LDL is too high, the excess can stick to artery walls and eventually cause a blockage, resulting in loss of blood flow to the heart. The exact mechanism for why this takes place is not completely understood, or at least there is some debate. One of the more accepted views is that damage to the artery wall will attract cholesterol to help in the healing process. What we do know is that damage to arteries can be caused by high blood pressure, stress, poor diet, and smoking.
So, the question becomes: Without those risk factors, would cholesterol be problematic? Remember, statistics show that an equal number of people who die from heart disease have low cholesterol as those with high cholesterol.
Cholesterol lowering medications (statins) work to inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the gut, and others aid in stopping production in the liver. What none of them do is to address why an excess is produced in the first place.
Causes of High Cholesterol
Genetics most likely has a lot to do with cholesterol levels, but genetics may simply mean that one displays the same family habits and lifestyle choices that lead to any number of conditions, including high cholesterol. The most likely catalyst for producing high cholesterol is insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that is produced in the pancreas and is released in response to high blood sugar and stress (fight or flight). A chronically high level of insulin in the blood stream causes fat storage and can lead to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels.
Inside each of the body’s cells are receptors that signal the pancreas to send out more cholesterol when the level is low. Remember, cholesterol is necessary for the production of every cell in the body, including fat cells. The trouble here is that once the cell is full, any excess cholesterol has nowhere to go, so it simply stays in the blood stream.
Another very important hormone to consider is glucagon. Unlike insulin, which causes sugar to be converted to fat and stored, glucagon stimulates fat for energy use. Keeping the insulin/glucagon system in balance is critical.
Stress will also increase insulin levels and can lead to elevated cholesterol and damage to the arteries.
Stress is an important survival mechanism that prepares the body (and the mind) for situations that warrant complete focus and awareness. In response to fight or flight, the adrenals release cortisol, which in turn signals the pancreas to release insulin. The energy from glucose can now be used to fight or flee. In this way, the system is very important. The problem is we are only designed to live with stress for short bouts. When we are stressed for extended periods of time, the system becomes overworked and can lead to a number of health complications, including elevated levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure, and damage to the artery walls, which may be the reason that cholesterol “sticks” in the first place.
Why stress leads to elevated cholesterol levels isn’t exactly understood, but one reason may be that energy molecules produced from stress stimulates fatty acids to be released by the liver.
Natural Solutions for High Cholesterol
A natural approach to lowering the risk for coronary artery disease (CAD) is to find what your body’s normal cholesterol levels are, and to address issues that damage arteries. Exercise, lowering stress, proper rest, and diet are all important things to consider in reducing the risk of CAD.
Exercise, in particular weight training, can lower blood pressure, reduce body fat, increase metabolism, reduce stress and balance the insulin/glucagon system. It has also been shown to significantly increase HDL cholesterol levels. In addition, heavy weight training, that stimulates the lactic system, causes a surge in growth hormone, which has been shown to regulate cholesterol production.
Eat small meals throughout the day. This will also help to control blood sugar and keep your cholesterol levels in check. Lean proteins should be combined with non processed carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, and of course, green leafy vegetables. Consuming high fiber foods such as oats and almonds can lower total cholesterol by as much as 12%. However, adding sugar toppings such as honey, sugar and milk can increase blood sugar and insulin response, so they should be limited.
Get at least seven hours of sleep per night to help control blood pressure and increase growth hormone levels.
While medications may help to lower cholesterol in the blood, they do not address the causes, which may in fact be more relevant to heart disease. On the other hand, exercise, diet and managing stress does both.