So you went to the doctors recently, he told you your cholesterol levels are too high and that you should take a bunch of Statin drugs. Did you ask him how long you should be taking them for? If so his answer would have been something like, “Well unless you clean up your diet and lifestyle then really for the rest of your life”. This is interesting as the doctor is subtly implying that you have an either/or choice i.e. if you can’t be bothered to clean up your diet and lifestyle then don’t worry about it just pop a handful of statins and you’ll be as right as rain. Intuitively how does this sit with you as a solution for healthy living in Singapore? What does your gut say? If, like many Singaporeans, you question this logic then you’re on the right page to discover the true causes of high cholesterol levels and what it really means for your health. It’s a massive topic and we’ll be coming back to it frequently on these pages but to get started let’s discuss what it is first.
What is cholesterol?
Let’s see what wiki1 has to say, “Cholesterol, from the Ancient Greek chole- (bile) and stereos (solid) followed by the chemical suffix -ol for an alcohol, is an organic molecule. It is a sterol (or modified steroid), a type of lipid molecule, and is biosynthesized by all animal cells…” OK so it’s a type of lipid molecule or fat. Does wiki think it’s useful? “…it is an essential structural component of all animal cell membranes…”. Wow! So not only useful but essential. The latest research2 seems to suggest that there are 30 trillion cells in the human body and each of those cells is made up of 30% cholesterol. Cholesterol is essential for the high turnover of cells in the human body which die and are recreated regularly throughout our lifetimes. Indeed, people with higher than average cholesterol could be pregnant women, who have a rapidly multiplying ball of cells in their wombs; babies – who are rapidly multiplying balls of cells; sick people – who are fighting infections and rebuilding their immune systems; athletes or anyone regularly exercising – because they are breaking down and rebuilding muscle. So, if cholesterol is essential for building cells and is particularly high in the creation of new human life why is it so vilified by the medical profession?
What does the medical community say about cholesterol?
There does seem to be an association in adults with a high cholesterol count and a greater likelihood of cardiovascular disease (heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, etc.). The theory being is that eating too much fat creates excess cholesterol particles that get buried in your arteries, clog them up, block blood flow to the heart, leading to high blood pressure that results in more serious heart problems as you age. But is cholesterol the cause of these issues or is it just a correlated factor? This “Lipid Hypothesis” that postulates a link between blood cholesterol levels and occurrence of heart disease is just that, a theory, and is slowly being refuted not just by the alternative health community but by the brighter and more inquisitive members of the medical community.
Why has this theory come into question? Well for a number of unanswered questions that throw it into doubt:
1. Why do half of all people with “normal” cholesterol scores still get heart attacks?
2. Why do 25% of people who have premature heart disease present no risk factors at all?
3. Why do modern day hunter-gatherers, such as the Maasai of Kenya who consume high meat and high fat diets, have no incident of heart disease or atherosclerosis3?
Maybe cholesterol is not the culprit of heart disease after all! Maybe something else is going on that’s causing the high cholesterol and maybe this is contributing to the problems that lead to cardiovascular disease in Singaporeans.
What is your doctor not telling you about cholesterol levels...
What your doctor isn’t telling you, or doesn’t know, is that if your cholesterol levels are high it’s not that your body hates you and is trying to kill you but actually that your body needs to produce that much cholesterol to fix up things that are going wrong. Cholesterol is produced by the liver, not by eating cholesterol rich foods which is a common misconception, and there are several reasons why your liver might be pumping out abnormally high amounts of cholesterol such as:
You regularly consume alcohol
Alcohol destroys the intestinal lining of your gastrointestinal tract that can be as long as 42 feet (from mouth to anus) in some people. Imagine the billions of cells required to be rebuilt in 42 feet of tubing after a boozy night out on the town. You do not want to be preventing your body’s production of cholesterol (Statin drugs) in situations like this, you want to be encouraging it.
Your body deals with stress in exactly the same way whether its emotional, physical or environmental stress. Your adrenal glands produce cortisol which is a catabolic hormone (tissue destructive) that breaks down muscle protein to convert to glucose to prepare the body for the fight or flight response. Your body cannot tell the difference between running away from a tiger or having an argument with your boss, it reacts physiologically in the same way. If you are continually under a lot of chronic stress, at work, in a relationship, at the gym etc. then your liver needs to be pumping out cholesterol to fix the damage that you’ve done.
A high sugar diet
Many Singaporeans consume way too much sugar as evidenced by the high diabetes rates recently highlighted by Lee Hsien Loong in his latest national day speech. Excess sugar in the bloodstream needs to be dealt with urgently by your body to avoid poisoning your blood and creating hyperglycemia. When you over consume sugar your pancreas produces insulin to shuttle the sugar into glycogen stores in your liver and in your muscles. If they are full up then your liver converts the excess sugar into triglycerides by a process called de novo lipogenesis. Yes that’s right - you create fat from sugar which will also contribute to a high cholesterol count. Sugar, and in particular refined white sugar, also causes a stress response on its own so you get a double whammy.
These underlying issues, along with many others (such as lack of sleep, vegetable oil & trans-fat consumption, poor breathing, buried negative emotions etc.) will all cause a high cholesterol response that is necessary to fix the problems. Taking Statin drugs to lower your cholesterol levels artificially will not fix the problems caused by alcohol, stress and a poor diet. In fact, taking Statin drugs will ensure that your body cannot repair itself to the extent that it needs to and are likely to create more problems than before you walked into your doctor’s office in the first place!
A good analogy to this is bones and skiing! Ok bear with me here. I like skiing but I recognise that it can be a dangerous sport and I may break an arm or a leg, hopefully nothing worse. However, should I take a drug that turns my bones to jelly so they no longer can be broken? Are my bones the problem? Obviously not, the problem that could potentially lead to the broken bones is the sport. We shouldn’t be trying to reduce the amount of bones in our body in the same way we shouldn’t be trying to reduce the amount of cholesterol when we need it. We should be addressing the root cause of the problems rather than chasing the symptoms. This is the major difference between a Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach and a medical doctor.
So what can I do about my high cholesterol?
We’ll give you 3 big wins right here that are guaranteed to help with the 3 most common problems above.
Avoid alcohol or protect yourself
It’s too easy to say, “cut down” or “quit”. But what you can do is prepare yourself before you go out by eating a huge meal beforehand. Preferably with fat that will help line your stomach with a protective layer before dumping the alcohol in. This is the single most important step you can make in protecting your gastrointestinal lining. Secondly, try and have a glass of water with every glass of alcohol as the “best solution for pollution is dilution”. And thirdly, when you get home, take a fistful (ok 4 or 5 is good enough) of activated charcoal with a large glass of water to help mop up the toxins in your gut before bed.
Meditate (even for 5 minutes a day)
The most efficacious way of reducing stress is meditation. Bar none. A search of pub med reveals 1410 studies linking the reduction of stress with a meditation practice4. In fact, the US Army has now officially sanctioned Transcendental Meditation (a specific form of meditation) as one of the main treatment protocols in dealing with veterans with PTSD. It’s not easy to start incorporating meditation into a busy schedule but a good place to start is 5 mins a day on the Headspace mobile app www.headspace.com. I personally have built my practice up to 40 mins a day and rather than finding it takes up precious time I have found that it helps in organising my mind and allows me to be a lot more focused and productive when juggling many balls simultaneously. But 5 mins a day is a great place to start.
Use natural sugars
Sugar is tasty, addictive and found in everything. However white sugar is a highly refined product that acidifies the body, promotes the proliferation of cancer cells, feeds candida and fungal overgrowths, causes obesity and high cholesterol, oxidises fragile polyunsaturated fats that lead to cardiovascular disease and many other bad things. Sugar: The Bitter Truth by Dr. Robert Lustig is a great free YouTube video that highlights the real dangers of sugar and was the instrumental reason for me cutting it out of my diet. It’s not easy but we have a great hierarchy of sugar substitutes in our handy food guide infographic, but the biggest win would be to switch to coconut sugars, palm sugars or grade b maple syrup. Even better would be black strap molasses, raw honey and dates.
If you're keen to work with one of our amazing Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach to help support you to lower your cholesterol levels holistically and live the life you've always dream of then please do schedule your free appointment with us here.
Health, Happiness and Longevity
The Levitise Team,
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2. National Geographic - How Many Cells Are in the Human Body—And How Many Microbes? 13 January 2016.
3. Wired, Milk, meat and blood: How diet drives natural selection in the Maasai. 30 October 2012.