What are you kidding me? My cholesterol could be too low? While we frequently hear from our doctors and the media about how dangerous it is to have elevated cholesterol, low cholesterol carries its own list of health risks, such as stroke and depression.
Before we get into the details of this too often overlooked health risk, let’s first acknowledge what we here at In Good Health have been saying for years: “cholesterol is essential to our good health and elevated blood cholesterol is not the main culprit in heart disease.” The preponderance of recent research has shown us that the connection between blood cholesterol and heart disease is much more complex than a single number such as total blood cholesterol.
There is the ratio between the LDL’s and the HDL’s and then there are the various different types of LDL’s and then there are triglycerides and homocysteine. We have already discussed this topic ad nauseum in numerous articles and shared with you several studies from newspapers, magazines and medical journals on the subject, so we will not rehash it all here. This article is about low cholesterol or hypocholesterolemia.
We actually had a client share with us the other day that her doctor told her because her total blood cholesterol was below 150 she has nothing to worry about and she would live a long and healthy life if she maintained that level. We feel this advice is extremely misleading. Not only does it fly in the face of well-known and reliable medical research and statistics, it ignores the countless other indicators for a variety of other dangerous and debilitating health conditions. This assertion gives the patient a false sense of security by implying that low blood cholesterol is indicative of good health. It is also inconsistent with the biochemical purpose of this vital substance called cholesterol. Such advice is similar to the practice of some physicians who freely prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs as a preventive measure to people with cholesterol levels of 200, a level considered borderline even by the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association. (For more info on the added risks associated with these drugs, go to http://www.mercola.com/2000/sept/10/statins_cancer.htm)
In order to keep you well informed and several steps ahead of this particular physician and others out there like him, let’s take a closer look at cholesterol and the reason it exists in our bodies. Cholesterol is manufactured in the liver and in most human cells. In fact, the liver is responsible for 75% of the cholesterol running through your bloodstream right now. The other 25% comes from your diet. Dietary cholesterol can only come from animal sources. Cholesterol serves several vital functions, including:
1. To maintain the integrity of cell membranes in order to protect our cells from free radical damage that can lead to heart disease and cancer. In this sense, cholesterol has an antioxidant effect.
2. Cholesterol acts as a precursor to vital hormones that help us deal with stress, such as cortisol, and to the sex hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
3. Cholesterol is a precursor to vitamin D, a vital fat-soluble vitamin needed for healthy bones (by enhancing the proper absorption of calcium) and nerve function, mineral metabolism, muscle tone, insulin production, fertility and immune system function. In fact, cholesterol is necessary for the conversion of sunshine to vitamin D.
4. Bile salts are made from cholesterol. Bile salts are vital for digestion and assimilation of dietary fats and therefore the metabolism of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.
5. Cholesterol is necessary for the proper function of serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is the body’s natural “feel-good” chemical.
6. Dietary cholesterol plays a very important role in maintaining the health and integrity of the intestinal wall.
* This list is excerpted from Nourishing Traditions, an excellent cookbook by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig.
So you can see why you would not want to get rid of or even minimize the
cholesterol in your body. It is truly a vital, life-giving substance. Some symptoms or conditions that can result from cholesterol that is too low are:
1. Chronic Emotional Disorders, such as Anxiety and Severe Depression
2. Hemorrhagic Stroke
3. Obesity (due to inability to digest fats properly)
4. Infertility and Decreased Libido
6. Leaky Gut Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion
8. Insulin Resistance
9. Various nutrient deficiencies, especially of fat soluble vitamins
One of the most recent studies conducted on blood cholesterol levels found
people with total cholesterol under 180 are twice as likely to have a hemorrhagic stroke. This is the type of stroke that results from burst blood vessels in the brain. Since cholesterol plays a vital role in the integrity of the walls of the cells and blood vessels, this connection is no mystery. Although hemorrhagic strokes make up 20% of all strokes (the other 80% being ischemic strokes, which occur when a blood clot forms in the brain), this is still a significant risk considering stroke is the number three killer in the United States. The researchers in the study, which was presented at the American Heart Association’s annual stroke conference in 1999, went as far to say that an ideal level for total blood cholesterol is about 200. This lends further support to the argument against simply keeping our cholesterol below 200. Once again, we must be careful not to over simplify the cholesterol guidelines.
A recent Canadian study looked at the relationship between cholesterol levels and deaths from suicide. They found that, adjusting for age and sex, those in the lowest quarter of total cholesterol concentration had six times the risk of committing suicide as did those in the highest quarter. Consequently, low serum cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of severe depression and suicide.
What causes abnormal cholesterol? Well, one of the growing, more recent causes is cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as statin drugs. (See the reference above for more information about these drugs.) Hypocholesterolemia is one area that has not yet been the subject of extensive research. Based on what we know about endocrine function, there are several possible causes, such as:
1. Chronic stress
2. High-sugar, low-fat diets
3. Heavy metal toxicity
4. Liver disease
5. Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
6. Malnutrition or malabsorption
7. Genetic predisposition
Low cholesterol is quite common in endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, and people with severe eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa.
So what do you do with this information? What is an optimal blood cholesterol level and how do you maintain it? And if you have one group of studies telling you that high cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease and another group telling you that low cholesterol puts you at risk for stroke, what is optimal anyway? Well, these are tricky questions and, you guessed it, there are no simple answers.
The first factor to consider here is that, like any other health factor we have written about, optimal blood cholesterol levels will vary for each individual. Some people are predisposed to higher cholesterol because of genetics while others are very efficient at metabolizing dietary cholesterol and have lower cholesterol levels.
Another caveat here is that because cholesterol acts as an antioxidant, individuals who have more free radical activity in their bodies tend to have higher blood cholesterol levels. In light of these factors when considered together with the most recent and reliable studies, an optimal range seems to be between 180 and 230.
Since the liver plays such a key role in your blood cholesterol level, your best approach for maintaining an optimal level is to take the necessary steps to improve your overall health and, in particular, your liver function. You can begin this effort by (surprise, surprise!) limiting your consumption of simple and refined sugars, especially pastas, breads, cereals, crackers, and alcohol. One of the main functions of the liver, in conjunction with the pancreas, is sugar metabolism. Most of us consume too much sugar and overburden the liver so it runs less efficiently and is less able to perform its other important functions, such as cholesterol metabolism. Including enough omega 3 oils in your diet (such as from flax seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and fish), will also support proper endocrine function.
Another vital function of the liver is to identify and filter toxins, such as food additives and environmental pollutants, out of your body. However, the liver typically becomes so overburdened with these toxins that this function becomes compromised. In order to revitalize this essential organ and optimize its detox function is to do a liver detox or a liver cleanse. You should consult with a qualified nutritional consultant about how to go about this safely and properly. But in the meantime, you can take some supplements to enhance your liver’s detoxification ability, such as Alpha Lipoic Acid, Milk Thistle, and Glutathione.
Since bile is such a key factor in fat metabolism, supporting the function of the gall bladder can also be extremely helpful. Whole beet concentrate is an effective nutrient for this purpose. However, because beets are so high in sugar you do not want to start eating tons of beets to help your gall bladder at the expense of your liver and pancreas. An excellent alternative is to take supplemental whole beet concentrate. A product we use is called Beta TCP from Biotics and we have had remarkable success with this product for people with gall bladder challenges and inefficient fat metabolism. For people who have had their gall bladders removed, the appropriate supplement product would be Beta Plus.
So if you suffer from depression, chronic irritability, anxiety, or have suffered a stroke, check your cholesterol. If your cholesterol is under 180, consider changing your diet as described above and taking some liver-supporting supplements. Low cholesterol is becoming more common and is nothing to fool around with. If we don’t begin taking charge of our own health, I suspect that hypocholesterolemia will soon be an epidemic like we are now seeing with other endocrine-related disorders, such as hypoglycemia and diabetes, which are also heavily influenced by low-fat, high-sugar diets.