Cholesterol’s valuable role in your health
CHOLESTEROL is a naturally occurring lipid which has important functions in the body. It is essential in the production of the body's steroid hormones, and is a component of cell membranes throughout the body.
Cholesterol only causes health problems if there is an excessive amount in the bloodstream.
It accumulates in the form of plaque in blood vessels, causing a narrowing of the vessels and restrictions in blood flow. This increases the risk of heart disease.
The component of cholesterol called LDL Cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol) is inflammatory and causes the problems in the arteries. On the other hand, HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) has a protective effect, so it is known as "good" cholesterol.
Whether a total cholesterol reading is unhealthy or not depends on the ratio of the "good" and "bad" cholesterols, as well as the amounts of triglycerides (blood fats) and VLDL cholesterol (very low density lipoprotein).
A total cholesterol test as part of a full blood count is not very helpful because it does not show the different types of cholesterol. A morning fasting test will show a breakdown of the LDL and HDL components, which makes an assessment of the amount of harm more accurate.
Most of us know that high cholesterol is a risk to health and should be treated. One of the wisest things I have read is "treat the risk, not the cholesterol".
Treating the risk means eating a healthy balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, having sufficient exercise and managing stress effectively. Not always easy, but it's important to try.
In terms of diet, the traditional approach has been to avoid foods high in cholesterol, which may help but is not always effective. In reality the physiology is more complex, and blood sugar regulation is very much involved.
Lowering the intake of starchy carbohydrates, sugars and alcohol is also essential to reduce cholesterol. Unfortunately many people increase these foods while trying to avoid cholesterol-containing foods such as eggs, meat and dairy products.
More recent research shows that eating eggs actually improves the ratio of "good" to "bad" cholesterol so they can be included in the diet.
Saturated fat (from animal products) will increase cholesterol more than other high cholesterol foods such as eggs and shellfish.
It is important to include regular protein such as fish, eggs, vegetarian protein or meat, although lean meat is preferable.
A healthy lifestyle is beneficial to maintaining healthy cholesterol, but very high levels need a medication also, at least until healthy levels and lifestyle changes are achieved.
Medically the treatment for high cholesterol is a "statin" drug, of which there are many different brands.
Some brands are not absorbed very well, so it is wise to ask for advice on the best supplements. There are natural remedies that are equally effective in reducing high cholesterol.
A product made from red rice yeast is as effective as statin drugs, and many doctors are now recommending this.
A natural remedy called sugar cane wax alcohol gives good results in lowering cholesterol. Herbs for the liver are useful in reducing high cholesterol, specifically globe artichoke leaf and St Mary's thistle.
Trish Clough has been a practising herbalist for more than 30 years. The information in the column is meant for general interest only and should not be considered as medical advice. You can follow Trish's blog at: traditionalmedicinals