When I bring up cholesterol, what comes to mind?
Thoughts of a healing, essential lipid that’s integral to our body’s proper function? Or images of clogged arteries, heart attacks, and strokes?
I’m guessing the latter, thanks to the (incorrect) narrative we’ve all become accustomed to hearing over the years. In fact, I would venture to say that perhaps no substance has been more unfairly vilified in medicine than cholesterol!
While it’s often portrayed as the silent “killer” that causes heart attacks and strokes, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cholesterol Has Been Framed
Just because cholesterol is present in clogged arteries doesn’t mean it’s the problem in and of itself. It’s understandable why people think this way — it seems reasonable to conclude that if arteries are clogged with cholesterol, then cholesterol must be the bad guy. But things aren’t always as they seem!
I like to use this example to explain…imagine for a moment that someone has been living on a primitive island their entire life before moving to the US. They have no knowledge of how things operate here. Over time, as they’re driving around, they notice that at every automobile accident scene there are ambulances. Not knowing any better, that person might incorrectly assume that because ambulances are at the scene of every accident, they must be what’s causing the accidents!
Cholesterol is confused in much the same way. When a person’s blood vessels are chronically inflamed and the lining of the vessel becomes damaged, the body responds by sending in a cholesterol “patch” to try to fix the problem. Cholesterol is the ambulance! It’s simply responding to the problem, it’s not the problem in and of itself.
Chronic inflammation is the problem…it’s the root cause of coronary artery disease. Not cholesterol.
When we continually drive inflammation at the cellular level — with an unhealthy diet, poor sleep, no exercise, toxin exposure, etc. — our body will continue to try to put out the inflammatory fire with cholesterol. Over time, that cholesterol can build up and create plaques that could potentially block arteries.
Inflammation: The Real Killer
Now that you know cholesterol isn’t the bogeyman we’ve all been led to believe that it is, you may be wondering why 25% of the population over the age of 40 is on a statin drug to lower cholesterol levels…that’s a great question! And one with a rather simple answer: treating high cholesterol with pharmaceuticals makes a lot of people a lot of money.
Despite the fact that 60% of people who have a heart attack or stroke have “normal” cholesterol levels, and hundreds upon hundreds of studies have confirmed the damaging effects statin drugs have on the body, they’re still handed out like candy every day at doctor’s offices around the country…with little regard for the consequences.
Not one significant research study has shown that avoiding cholesterol prolongs your life…not one! Avoiding and lowering cholesterol does just the opposite, in fact.
That’s because every cell in our body needs cholesterol to function. Our cell membranes are made of fat and cholesterol…our brains are 70% fat…our nerve coverings are 80% fat…we need cholesterol to make and utilize hormones, including sex hormones, cortisol, and vitamin D…cholesterol aids digestion…are you seeing the trend? A body without enough cholesterol is destined for disease and dysfunction.
That’s not to say you can’t have too much of a good thing — you certainly can, especially if you consume lots of unhealthy fats and conventional meat products, live a sedentary, stressful life, and are exposed to loads of toxins (basically the typical life of most Americans)! These kinds of habits contribute to the creation of dense LDL cholesterol particles, and those are problematic.
Some people also have a genetic predisposition for high cholesterol — but as I’ve talked about a lot here, genetics aren’t our destiny. We aren’t “doomed” for a certain health outcome just because we have a genetic weakness — we have the power to keep dangerous genes turned “off” by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Instead of focusing so heavily on cholesterol as the sole indicator of cardiovascular disease, we should be looking deeper at the real killer: inflammation.
Inflammation in the arterial walls is what lays the groundwork for plaque formation, as I mentioned above, and needs to be evaluated alongside a complete cholesterol panel that differentiates particle sizes and densities to more accurately assess risk for coronary artery disease.
Measuring Inflammation in the Body
Two blood tests are especially helpful for measuring inflammation in the body: CRP (C-reactive protein) and homocysteine. In addition to those, a comprehensive cholesterol breakdown — as opposed to an isolated total cholesterol number or basic HDL/LDL check — should be obtained, as it segments the different types and particle sizes of cholesterol and measures ratios to show a more complete picture. This is known as a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Lipoprotein Profile. All of these tests should be analyzed together to assess overall cardiovascular risk.
We’re just as different on the inside as we are on the outside — so I don’t think there’s a perfect cholesterol number everyone should aim for. Each person’s “normal” will be different, and should be evaluated in combination with other health markers.
Want to hear an interesting fact? When someone’s body is healing, cholesterol levels often temporarily go up to aid the process! Many of the students who go through my Cellular Health Accelerator program see this happen, as their cells are healing.
How Can You Reduce Your Risk for Cardiovascular Disease?
If you find out your inflammation levels are high, the absolute best way to reduce inflammation in the body is through fasting. If you’re new to fasting, check out my tips for the best ways to start in this blog. Try intermittent fasting at the beginning, where you limit your eating window to 8 or 10 hours each day, then build up to a full water fast when you’re ready. Always check with your doctor before fasting if you have medical conditions or are on medications.
Beyond fasting, we must return to a Paleolithic style of eating, and cut refined grains, sugars, dairy, and unhealthy fats from our diets. The highly processed frankenfoods we’ve become accustomed to are fanning the flames of inflammation in our bodies. It’s also super important to manage stress, get exercise, sleep at least 7 to 8 hours a night, expose your skin to sunlight, and avoid toxins.
My philosophy is simple…let’s start emulating a time in our history when there wasn’t heart disease! Myocardial infarction wasn’t studied in medical schools until 1910 because it wasn’t an issue…that’s how rare it was. Not because they didn’t perform autopsies and study causes of death (they did), and not because they were missed (heart attacks aren’t readily missed)… because they weren’t happening. Today, 1 in every 2.5 Americans will die of heart disease, 1 in 3 of cancer.
Diseases that didn’t exist all that long ago in significant numbers are now killing us in record numbers.
Lots of things have changed since our ancestors lived, of course — we’re surrounded by infinitely more toxins and stress, and that certainly plays into things. But the biggest difference is our diet. Our ancestors lived on farms and ate butter, lard, and red meat — basically all the things we’ve been told are terrible for us…yet they were infinitely healthier than we are now. The Standard American diet — chock full of refined grains, sugars, and unhealthy fats — is literally killing us.
We’re the sickest nation in the world and getting sicker. We consume approximately 60% of all the world’s medications, yet we only comprise around 5% of the world’s population…that should make us pause to evaluate what we’re doing wrong!
Start eating a whole food, nutrient dense diet brimming with tons of organic vegetables and fruits, pasture-raised meats and wild-caught fish, and healthy fats…yes, fats!
Don’t be afraid to eat fat — it’s the biggest missing ingredient in the standard American diet, because we’ve been brainwashed to believe it’s all unhealthy. But here’s the major caveat…inflammatory fats (like vegetable, soybean, and corn oils, and commercially raised meats) ARE incredibly unhealthy and should be avoided. Healthy fats, on the other hand — the kind that’s found in organic, pasture-raised animal meat and wild-caught fish, avocados and their oil, coconut, MCT, and olive oils, and nuts and seeds — are essential to our health.
Remember — our cell membranes are made of two layers of fat. Our brains are 70% fat. Our nerve coverings are 80% fat. Our bodies NEED fat and cholesterol to function properly…but now you know that not all fat is equal!
Take beef, for example.
A high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio drives inflammation in the body.
Grass fed beef has an omega-6 to 3 ratio of 1.5 to 1, which is fantastic and highly anti-inflammatory. It also has high levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acids), known to be anti-inflammatory and heart healthy, is high in stearic acid and vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (including glutathione). Grass fed, grass finished red meat does not drive heart disease…it can help protect against it!
Commercial, grain-fed beef, on the other hand, has an omega-6 to 3 ratio anywhere from 7.5–1 up to 20 to 1, depending on the type of animal. That’s highly inflammatory.
They look identical on a plate, but our bodies respond completely differently to the two…one is anti-inflammatory, the other highly inflammatory.
It’s incredibly important to eat organic and pasture-raised / wild-caught animals for this reason! And eat organic produce whenever possible, to avoid the toxins in conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.
If we start viewing food as medicine, we’ll go a long way towards reversing the chronic diseases that are plaguing our society!