Cholesterol is nothing less than vital for life. It is vital for development. It is vital for growth. It is vital for reproduction. It is ultimately vital for both life to emerge, and for life to sustain itself. This is not a personal opinion—it’s a fact.
Why? Because every membrane of every single cell in your body relies on cholesterol to give it structural integrity. Because every single nerve cell in your brain and every synapse through which nerve impulses are transmitted are mostly made of cholesterol. Because every sex hormone of every woman, man and child is constructed from cholesterol. Simply put, without cholesterol, animal life is impossible. There is not a single person in the world that can dispute this—it is simply so.
Does it even make sense to say that cholesterol is important for health, when our very existence and that of every animal life form depend on it? And how in the world can anyone even formulate the notion that cholesterol can be bad in any way, let alone the cause of a disease, and go as far as suggesting that we should avoid it and try to minimise or even suppress the body’s production of it as if it were some kind of poisonous substance whose purpose is to harm us? This is nothing less then absurd—totally and completely absurd.
I wish it were enough to say just these things to dispel all false, but firmly held beliefs we hold “on the dangers that cholesterol poses to our health” that have been repeated to us over the years, and that are now ingrained in our mind. Unfortunately, although those few fundamental points about cholesterol made above are more than enough to convince me that the entire anti-cholesterol campaign is at best a huge misunderstand, and at worse one of the biggest and most lucrative scams in human history, I fear that for most of us who have been thoroughly brainwashed by decades of misinformation, it will not suffice. So let’s look at this a little more closely, such that once you have finished reading this article, you will be a lot better informed than you were, and in fact, almost surely better informed than your family physician.
No such thing as “good” or “bad” cholesterol
Firstly, cholesterol comes in only one form: there is no such thing as good and bad cholesterol. Whether it is the cholesterol contained in the dark orange yolk of a fresh, free range, organic egg, whether it is the cholesterol synthesised by your liver through a complicated chain of steps that we still do not understand completely, or whether it is the cholesterol produced by the individual cells like the glial cells in the brain, or in any other tissue or organ other than the liver. And yes, this is yet something else that should make us clue in to the fact that cholesterol is vital for survival: unlike almost any other molecule, cholesterol is maybe the only one that probably every cell in every tissue can produce. Amazing, isn’t it? Why would most if not all cells be endowed with this ability, if cholesterol was not of vital importance to their survival as a living entity? Anyway, there is only one form of cholesterol, and although I am repeating myself, it is very important to make the point as clear as possible: cholesterol is beyond good or bad—it is simply vital.
What are LDL and HDL?
Secondly, what is usually referred to as “good” or “bad” cholesterol (the result of a marketing scheme by the pharmaceutical industry), are actually complex molecules called lipoproteins. They are proteins that transport lipids in the bloodstream (hence lipo-protein), and in particular cholesterol, to and from tissues in different parts of the body. Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is not soluble in water and therefore cannot flow in the bloodstream which is mostly water. For this reason it needs to be transported where it is needed by some other molecules: the lipoproteins. It is indeed most unfortunate that we hear about LDL as the ‘bad’, and HDL as the ‘good’ cholesterol. This is not only false, but completely absurd.
LDL stands for Low Density Lipoprotein, and HDL stands for High Density Lipoprotein. The reason why this erroneous association and misguided use of these terms came about—beyond the scheme to make us believe that there is a bad agent in our blood that we need to get rid of by taking drugs—is based on the fact that one of the functions of LDL is to transport cholesterol from the liver, where most of it is manufactured, to cells and tissues, where need it for repair and regeneration. Since LDL helps to carry cholesterol out from the liver and into the bloodstream to tissues, in imagining that cholesterol in the blood should be minimised, this is clearly a terrible thing. Hence LDL was dubbed the “bad” cholesterol. Does this makes any sense? Not the slightest.
Why does the liver produce this complex cholesterol molecule, and why is there LDL to carry it from the liver to the organs and tissues of our body? Because cholesterol is necessary for the manufacture, maintenance, and repair of the membrane of every single one of the 50 trillion cells in the body.
Naturally, for a molecule as important, as complex to synthesise, and therefore as precious as cholesterol, the organism has evolved a way to collect and reuse it: the three R’s of Reduce (the need for synthesis), Reuse, and Recycle (everything you can). One of the roles of the HDL carrier molecules is to collect unneeded or surplus cholesterol and bring it back to the liver. Once more, in imagining that cholesterol in the blood should be minimised—beyond the clever trick to introduce the essential protagonist to counter the imagined antagonist, for if there is a bad guy there naturally must be a good guy—because HDL helps to carry cholesterol from the bloodstream back to liver, it was dubbed the “good” cholesterol. Does this makes any sense? Not the slightest.
So we know that one of the the roles of LDL and HDL molecules—certainly the most obvious one—is to transport cholesterol from the liver to cells and tissues, and back to it for reuse and recycling or breakdown into other molecules. LDL and HDL work together as partners in the cholesterol transport system. But do these lipoproteins have other roles in the complex biochemistry of the human body? Indeed they do.
HDL and LDL: beyond cholesterol transport
As incredible as this may possibly sound to you if you are still brain-washed by the anti-cholesterol campaigns intended to convince you to eat more highly processed, tasteless, odourless, chemically altered and typically rancid vegetable oils, as well as to start taking “life-saving” statin drugs, compiling all the data we have from studies that measured lipoprotein levels in the blood and death rates, we find that the lowest mortality from all diseases occurs in people with total lipoprotein levels between 200 and 240, centred on 220 mg/dl. These are age-corrected data, so as we age levels should gradually rise. But that’s not the only thing we find from looking at this graph of compiled data: there is an inverse relationship between lipoprotein levels and mortality such that the lower the lipoprotein levels are, the higher the death rate! and this for all diseases—infectious, parasitic and cardiovascular. To those who know what HDL and LDL molecules do, this is not surprising at all. It is, in fact, perfectly sensible.
As much as some may believe that the main role of LDL and HDL molecules is to carry cholesterol to and from tissues for cellular maintenance and repair, some would argue that their main role is not simple transport of cholesterol, but in fact, it is to protect the organism from bacterial and viral pathogens. It is firmly established that lipoproteins bind to endotoxins to inactivate them and protect against their toxic effects that include arterial wall inflammation. Endotoxins are part of the outer membrane of the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Pseudomonas, Neisseria, Haemophilus influenzae, Bordetella pertussis and Vibrio cholerae, all of which can cause severe, well known diseases. In addition, lipoproteins also protect against viruses like hepatitis B, and consequently in this case, against cancer and other diseases of the liver as reported here. There are many scientific publications on this and related topics, but most are quite complicated. (If you are interested in this kind of thing, you can look at this article, and browse through the long list of references. For those interested in bacteriology, I found a great free online textbook by Kenneth Todar of the University of Wisconsin.)
The essential point to remember, however, is that the lipoproteins LDL and HDL play a very important role in our immune system by neutralising harmful toxins released from the activity of pathogenic bacteria and viruses, thus protecting us from infectious diseases and the related chronic inflammation. This is why people with higher levels of lipoproteins LDL and HDL live longer and healthier lives.
Cholesterol and the brain
Although all cell membranes rely on cholesterol for structural integrity, neurons or brain cells are highly enriched in cholesterol that makes up more than 20% of their dry weight. The importance of this enrichment can be appreciated when we consider that our brain accounts for 2% of our body weight, but it contains 25% of the cholesterol in the body. This means that the amount of cholesterol in the brain is 12.5 times higher than the average. Isn’t this enough to convince you of the extreme importance of cholesterol for proper brain functions?
As elsewhere in the body, cholesterol is found in the cell membrane. For brain cells this is the myelin sheaths that insulate them. But in addition, and maybe more importantly, cholesterol is the main constituent of the synapses through which nerve impulses are transmitted from one neurons to another. And contrary to common wisdom that lipoproteins cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, and therefore brain cholesterol must be synthesised in the brain, it has been shown that if something prevents brain cells from synthesising the precious cholesterol, then they use whatever they can get from the lipoproteins circulating in the blood.
With these facts in mind, is it surprising that when cholesterol synthesis is suppressed by taking statin drugs, some of the most common symptoms are memory loss, dizziness, mental fog, slowing reflexes, all of which are directly related to brain function? Is it surprising that Alzheimer’s patients tend to have lower cholesterol levels both in the blood and in the brain? Well no, it’s not.
Do we need to go further? Don’t we all want to have a brain that is provided with all the fat and cholesterol is needs to function optimally for as long as we are alive? I think so. But if you want to learn more about the detrimental effects of cholesterol-reducing drugs, you can read any or all of Dr Duane Graveline‘s books: Lipitor: Thief of Memory; Statin Drugs Side Effect and the Misguided War on Cholesterol; and Statin Damage Crisis. I also stumbled upon this article in the Wall Street Journal (out of all places!), that describes how important cholesterol is for the brain, and hence, how damaging cholesterol-lowering drugs can be.
Cholesterol and hormones
What more needs to be said to emphasise its importance for healthy hormonal function than that all steroid hormones are made from cholesterol. Steroid hormones, as the names suggests, are steroids that act as hormones. Hormones are messenger molecules that tell cells what to do and when to do it. To carry out their function, (pass on their message), they must reach the nucleus of the cell. But to reach the well protected nucleus and bind to specific receptors in it, hormones must pass through the fatty cellular membrane. For this reason, hormones are made of fat: they are lipids. Since lipids are not water soluble, as is the case of cholesterol, hormones rely on specialised proteins to transport them in the bloodstream throughout the body.
There are 5 groups of steroid hormones: glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, androgens, oestrogens and progestogens, as well the closely related hormones that we refer to as Vitamin D. Each one of these is a family of hormones responsible for regulating the metabolism related to a specific group of substances.
Glucocorticoids are steroids produced in the adrenal gland, and responsible for glucose metabolism. Cortisol is maybe the most important of glucocorticoids as it is absolutely essential for life, regulating or supporting a variety of important cardiovascular, metabolic, immunologic, and homeostatic functions.
Mineralocorticoids are responsible for the regulation of minerals, the most important of which are sodium and potassium. The main mineralocorticoids is aldosterone that acts on the kidneys to regulate reabsorption of sodium and water from the bloodstream, but also the secretion of potassium. These two minerals are required in the well known sodium-potassium pump that continuously—for every single cell—work to ensure that the concentration of sodium stays higher outside the cell, while the concentration of potassium stays higher inside the cell. It is also through the sodium-potassium pump that glucose is transported from the bloodstream into the cell.
Androgens, oestrogens and progestogens are sex hormones. They must all be in good balance for proper development and physiological function, as well as psychological health in both males and females. It is important to emphasise that although we typically associate the main androgen, testosterone, with men, this hormone plays a very important role in muscle development and inhibition of fat deposition, both of which are equally essential in men and women. There are also several psychological factors regulated by the concentration and relative balance of male and female sex hormones such as assertiveness, motivation, self-confidence, on the one hand, and calm, caring and compassion, on the other.
Interestingly, the most important oestrogens are derived from androgens through the action of enzymes. Therefore a deficiency in androgens will naturally lead to a corresponding deficiency in oestrogenic hormones. Oestrogens regulate all aspects of the reproductive system in women. Phychologically, low oestrogen levels are associated with depression and hyper-sensitivity in females, and insecurity and obsessive compulsive behaviours in males. Progestogens are most important in their role in maintaining pregnancy (pro-gestation) and are therefore most important for women. They are, however, special hormones because progestogens are precursors to all other steroids. All steroid producing tissues such as the adrenals, ovaries and testes, must therefore be able to produce progestogens. To learn more about hormones, their importance, their effects and how to bring them into balance through diet, I recommend the Hormone Solution or Le regime hormone (in french) by Thierry Hertoghe, MD.
Too much cholesterol?
There is no such thing as too much cholesterol. The body produces exactly what it needs depending on the conditions, and as such, the amount in circulation is a consequence of other factors. Lipoprotein levels, reflecting the amount of cholesterol in circulation, are a function of genetics and of the state of the body. Genetic tendencies are what they are. The state of the body, as far as cholesterol is concerned, means primarily the condition of the tissues. And the condition of the tissues reflects the amount of damage they sustain in relation to the amount of repair that takes place, or in other words, the rate of ageing.
Since cholesterol gives cell membranes strength and integrity, it is needed to repair and rebuild cells. Therefore, the more cellular reproduction, as in growing children for example, the greater the need. But equally, the more cellular damage, the greater the need for cholesterol to repair the injured tissues. The damage sustained by tissues is primarily from glycation, free-radicals, and chronic inflammation, all of which are intimately related because blood sugar triggers both free-radical production and inflammatory processes, but inflammation also arises from the action of toxins and infectious agents like viruses and bacteria.
Refined and starchy carbohydrates and chemically unstable polyunsaturated vegetable oils both directly cause glycation, free-radical damage, and chronic inflammation. They should be eliminated from the diet to minimise tissue damage and ageing, maximise repairing and rebuilding, and as a consequence, minimise risks of degenerative diseases. It will also normalise cholesterol synthesis and usage, and bring lipoprotein levels into their optimal range, completely naturally because, (once more), the body’s cholesterol requirements and thus lipoprotein concentrations are a consequence of other factors. They should not be tampered with and artificially manipulated, because interventions of this kind can only and will inevitably lead to problems.
Further readings on cholesterol
If you want to learn more about cholesterol, I recommend to first read the short and light-hearted book by Malcolm Kendrick, MD, entitled The Great Cholesterol Con subtitled The truth about what really causes heart disease and how to avoid it. Beyond showing that cholesterol and saturated fat are not in any way causes of heart disease, this author presents convincing evidence that, in fact, it is psychological stress that is surely one of the main causes of heart disease.
After reading this, if you want to read a complete analysis of all the studies related in some way to heart disease that is also very accessible to a general readership, you should read the much longer but very thorough book by Anthony Colpo, revealingly also entitled The Great Cholesterol Con, but subtitled Why everything you’ve been told about cholesterol, diet and heart disease is wrong! Beyond the thorough review of the literature and clearly explained conclusions, the author looks at all major factors demonstrably linked to the causes of heart disease.
For a shorter but more technical review and close look at the cholesterol and saturated fat related scientific literature, you should read Fat and Cholesterol are Good for You by Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD. Beyond also showing that cholesterol and saturated fats are not in any way the cause of heart disease, this author makes a case for infectious disease as the root cause of arterial inflammation, buildup of plaque, and eventually heart disease. His line of arguments is also quite convincing.
The excellent book by Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories, is a thorough review of 150 years of diet-related medical history, especially in what relates to obesity and diabetes, but also heart disease. The writing style is that of a good science writer, as is the author. There is a full analysis of the lipid hypothesis of heart disease, followed by a full analysis of the carbohydrate hypothesis of heart disease. And although there more of an emphasis on the detrimental effects of eating carbohydrates, there is naturally considerable discussion of all points that relate to cholesterol and saturated fats.
Lastly, this is an excellent web site on cholesterol, full of interesting and well-researched articles: http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com and an excellent interview here.
Why Oh Why?
Why is it then, that most of us believe cholesterol is bad? Why do most of us believe we should, not sometimes, but always avoid foods that contain cholesterol or saturated fats that seem to help the body manufacture cholesterol? Because we have been told that it is. Nothing more complicated than that. We have been told this absurd, unfounded and clearly dangerous story, which is in fact a lie, but we believe it. Why have we been made to believe this? The answer is two-fold: on the one hand, bad science, bad scientists and egos, and on the other, money—lots and lots of money. In fact, more than 29 000 000 000 dollars worth of money.
For the “bad science” part I will only say this: It is true that the accumulation of plaque can lead to heart disease. It is also true that plaque is very cholesterol-rich. However, the reason why plaque is formed is because the arterial tissue is damaged and needs to be repaired. The cholesterol-rich plaque is like a scab whose role is to allow the damaged tissue to heal. And just as a scab, once the tissue is healed, it “falls off” and is brought back to the liver for recycling. The cholesterol is part of the healing agent: the cure, so to speak. The damage to the tissue comes from other things, wether it is inflammatory endotoxins released from pathogenic bacteria, cigarette smoking-related chemicals, or maybe most importantly glucose sticking haphazardly to proteins, damaging the arterial walls and forming advanced glycation end-products or AGEs for short, cholesterol is the bandage meant to help the tissue heal—not the cause of the problem.
For the “money” part, I will have to write a few more paragraphs. In the 1950s the vegetable oil industry found a way to hydrogenate inexpensive liquid vegetable oil made from soy and corn into firm shortening. This gave them the perfect means to compete for, and indeed takeover a large share of the market that had traditionally been held by the dairy (butter), meat (lard) or coconut and palm oil producers to which they did not have a way to tap into. With hydrogenation, they were able to produce butter substitutes (margarines), as well as lard and tropical oil substitutes (shortenings), and offer them at a mere fraction of the price of the original products with the potential of making enormous profits with their sale on a national and in some cases international scales. Therefore, unfortunately, but not so surprisingly, many of the large scale trials in the field of dietary science carried out in the 60s, 70s and 80s were funded by the vegetable oil industry.
The money that the vegetable oil industry must have made and still makes the world over, however, is probably nothing in comparison to the billions raked in every year by a handful of pharmaceutical manufacturers that produce and sell the cholesterol-lowering statins. In 2003, the best selling prescription drug in the world was Pfizer’s Lipitor with sales of 9.2 billion dollars (that’s more than 25 million per day). And in 2009 statin sales generated a staggering 25 billion dollars in revenues, and this figure has been rising since the very beginning of statin sales in the 1990s.
But doctors don’t have anything to gain from this, do they? Well, no, not really. But for one thing, doctors are usually not research scientist, and thus they are generally not only very poorly informed about health-related matters, but also unable or simply uninterested in reading books written by specialists on various health topics, let alone in reading the often technical and complicated scientific literature.
To make matters worse, 75% of clinical trials are funded by pharmaceutical companies, and therefore about 75% of all published medical papers also derive from pharmaceutical funding. Finally, the vast majority of conferences and workshops that doctors are invited to attend, all expenses paid of course, to keep them informed of the latest and greatest developments in medical science are also usually fully funded by the pharmaceutical. It goes without saying that what is presented at these conferences naturally serves their interests that are obviously purely financial.
I think you get the picture, but if you want to read more about this, all of the independent researchers and authors mentioned above: Malcolm Kendrick (The Great Cholesterol Con) and Uffe Ravnskov (Cholesterol and Fat are Good for You) who both practice medicine and have thus experienced this first hand, as well as Gary Taubes (Good Calories, Bad Calories) and Anthony Colpo (a different The Great Cholesterol Con) have some things to say about corporate involvement in clinical trials. Obviously, you can also search the internet to your heart’s content.
I hope I have succeeded in convincing you that cholesterol is not in the least harmful, and that it is, in fact, absolutely vital to your health: vital for your hormonal system, vital for your immune system, vital for your brain, and vital for every cell in your body.
I also hope I have convinced you that it is not only the case that everything you have been told that incriminates either cholesterol or LDL as causing heart disease or any other ailment is dead wrong, but that you should actually do whatever you can to maintain optimal lipoprotein levels around 220 mg/dl, and supply your body with ample amounts of unaltered health-promoting fats, as well as fat-soluble vitamins and cholesterol from organic eggs from free range, grass-and-insect eating hens, butter and fatty cheeses (preferably from unpasteurized milk to improve digestibility), and grass-fed meats. But here, and as I always emphasise, the most fundamental health-promoting thing to do is to eliminate insulin-stimulating and inflammation-causing carbohydrates.