Foods, specifically animal products, within our diet only contribute to about 10% of our blood cholesterol levels; the remaining ~90% is actually made in the liver. When examining heart disease risk total cholesterol levels are not the issue. Cholesterol actually plays a major role in proper body function including cellular membrane construction, hormone production and bile salts, which are used in digestion and assimilation of fat. When looking at risk it is key to understand the type of lipoprotein that is transporting the cholesterol from the liver and throughout the bloodstream. When cholesterol is carried by LDL or VLDL (low density lipoproteins) risk of cardiovascular disease increases, however if it is carried by HDL (high density lipoproteins) risk decreases (Bland, 192). How could this be?
LDL is considered the “bad cholesterol” because it is transported from the liver and delivered to the artery walls, resulting in plaque buildup and atherosclerosis. HDL on the other hand is what can be considered the “good cholesterol” because it is transported from the liver with the primary job to remove the LDL cholesterol buildup from the artery walls. Our bodies need both LDL and HDL to function properly so it is crucial that we have a proper balance of this cycle. ¹
I’ll save my anti-statin rant for another time and stick to the integrative and lifestyle changes you can do to lower LDL and raise your HDL cholesterol levels. In his book Disease Delusion, Dr. Jeffrey Bland recommends consumption of flavonoid and polyphenol rich foods like nuts, berries, garlic, onions, grapes, cocoa and citrus to prevent inflammation. He also discusses the benefits of phytonutrient rich foods like virgin olive oil, flaxseeds, green tea and turmeric. Studies have also shown that supplementation with vitamin B3, niacin and fish oil (specifically “clean” cod liver oil) at appropriate doses of 2-3 grams daily can beneficially alter cholesterol transport. Lastly, exercise is also very important in proper cholesterol balance because it decreases LDL and increases HDL levels in your blood. Exercising also helps to reduce stress, which has been shown to elevate levels of LDL as well (Bland, 200).