Understanding Cholesterol

Cholesterol is one of the least understood molecules and truly gets a "bad rap." Although people understand that cholesterol is only present in animal-based foods, what many do not know is that we produce cholesterol just like any other animal, and it is a very necessary molecule used to form all of the cell membranes in the body. Cholesterol is also the building-block molecule from which all of the steroid hormones are made. If there is more cholesterol in the diet than is needed, then the body synthesizes less. If the diet does not provide enough cholesterol then the body makes more.

Since cholesterol is used by the body to manufacture hormones such as cortisol, we can look at what cortisol is and make some logical connections. Cortisol is widely regarded as a "stress hormone" since the body needs and produces more of it in response to stress. This stress response takes many forms; one of them is lowering inflammation--useful if your version of stress involves hand-to-hand combat with large carnivores or fighting for your life. The lowering of inflammation is why the pharmaceutical versions of cortisol (Hydrocortizone and other glucocorticoids) are used to reduce inflammation in cases of massive trauma or major surgery. Other effects of cortisol are the elevation of blood pressure, release of glucose from the liver, inhibition of the immune system, retaining of water/reducing kidney function (probably useful if the combat with the large carnivores leads to bleeding form flesh wounds, as retaining water would help to maintain blood volume when bleeding profusely) and other effects. Taken together, when stress levels remain high, lots of cortisol is produced. It would then make sense that making a lot of cortisol requires a lot of what is made from, which is cholesterol. Therefor, during periods of high stress (a lifetime for many people), the levels of cholesterol can become very elevated. When the stress is long-term, the stress will end up raising the inflammation level through other mechanisms; effectively, stress reduces inflammation in the short-term only. Cholesterol has many other uses in the body, including the formation of myelin--the insulating/speeding sheath that wraps around the nerves, like rubber coating surrounding a copper wire, that increases their conduction velocity (and is damaged in multiple sclerosis).

Dietary modifications to reduce cholesterol has been met with mixed results. Some people can follow a strict no-cholesterol diet and achieve a lowering of their plasma cholesterol levels, while other are not able to accomplish this. This failure of dietary regimen to achieve the desired goal may be because of the body's production of cholesterol to meet the necessary levels for the amount of stress the individual is experiencing. The failure may also be because of reduced utilization of cholesterol. The gut bacteria play a role here also with Lactobacillus bacteria actively consuming cholesterol. Lactobacillus not only consumes cholesterol, but it makes bile acids that aid in the digestion of fats out of the cholesterol that it consumes. It therefore makes sense that if a person has altered gut bacteria demographies and Lactobacillus are in the minority, that person will not use up as much cholesterol and the cholesterol levels may accumulate. Elevated levels of stress reduce the levels of Lactobacillus, providing the pathway for stress to reduce the beneficial effects of a healthy diet. The same imbalance may also predispose the person to inflammation, which is the real cause of heart disease.

The use of probiotics in dairy products to control cholesterol greatly predates modern science, as the Maasai tribe in Kenya use a probiotic fermented milk in their diet. The Maasai diet is composed almost entirely of meat, milk and blood. This diet includes several times the recommended level of cholesterol, and yet the Maasai have no problems with atherosclerosis or other degenerative diseases that could be related to their diet. What has been found is that their fermented milk (no refrigeration, so it all gets fermented if not immediately consumed!) contains probiotic bacterial population s that help to consume and lower cholesterol. Other sources of probiotics, such as yogurt, have been found to lower cholesterol levels also. 

Many people incorporate yogurt into their diet because they like it or they think that it is healthy--but what makes it healthy? Much of the yogurt on store shelves has no bacterial colony whatsoever, so it is important to read the ingredients! If it has no "live active cultures," then it has little if any health benefit to our good bacteria and subsequent immune function.

Eggs have often been the poster child of high cholesterol food, if the yolk is used. However, consuming eggs may not have as much to do with elevated cholesterol level as initially thought. Similarly, fats were implicated in the disease process, as it has been observed that people with high triglycerides (fats) in their blood are at increased risk of developing heart disease. There are other variables in this equation, as is often the case. For example, abnormal populations of gut bacteria promote atherosclerosis by causing inflammatory changes and altered metabolism of lipids. The presence of abnormal gut bacteria that cause irritable bowel syndrome is directly linked to the development of thickening of the wall of arteries, which is of course the actual structural change that is at the center of what we call atherosclerosis.

Excerpt from The Symboint Factor by Richard Matthews DC DACNB FACFN