The Myth of Cholesterol

Reprinted from PN June 2012

Cholesterol is an essential molecule, especially for brain and spinal-cord functioning.

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The expression “sacred cow” is defined as an idea, custom, or institution considered exempt from criticism. If you study the history of medicine or science, you’ll find many ardently embraced sacred cows that eventually staggered and collapsed.

Influenced by profit-making agendas, one modern-day sacred cow is the belief we need to lower cholesterol levels at all costs through taking side-effect-laden drugs or eating foods humans never physiologically evolved to consume in quantity (e.g., trans-fats).

Natural-foods advocate and author Sally Fallon called high cholesterol “an invented disease, a problem that emerged when health professionals learned how to measure cholesterol levels….” According to George Mann, former Vanderbilt University professor, the cholesterol “myth is the greatest scientific deception of this century, perhaps of any century.”

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Absolutely Essential

Countless studies document cholesterol’s benefits, health risks of having too low cholesterol, and eyeopening side effects associated with cholesterol-lowering drugs.

The evidence presented in such studies is often ignored, trivialized or statistically manipulated because it challenges prevailing healthcare policies, which, like aircraft carriers, take a long time to change direction.

In spite of its vilification, cholesterol is an absolutely essential molecule, especially for brain and spinal-cord functioning.

Accumulating evidence suggests that pushing down cholesterol levels through drugs over time may have adverse neurological consequences. Given the molecule’s paramount importance in the nervous system, some speculate such efforts may compromise neurological recovery after traumatic spinal-cord or head injury.

Diet Influence

Most of our cholesterol comes not from food, but is produced by the body, especially the liver. Generally, our bodies synthesize three to five times more cholesterol than we consume. Notwithstanding the indoctrination otherwise, cholesterol levels are influenced very little by diet.

Most of our cholesterol comes not from food but is produced by the body, especially the liver.

For example, the Maasai, an African nomadic tribe that traditionally ate more animal fat than virtually any other population, had some of the world’s lowest cholesterol levels. Although there may be other health consequences, if we eat a large ham-and-cheese omelet for breakfast and a bacon cheeseburger with a milkshake for lunch, our bodies just produce less cholesterol. If we eat an ascetic vegetarian diet, our bodies will produce more cholesterol.

In contrast, by interfering with cholesterol biosynthesis, commonly prescribed statin drugs (e.g., Lipitor) are extremely effective in lowering cholesterol. However, they also compromise the production of several other substances vital for health, including coenzyme Q10 critical for energy metabolism and heart and muscle health, and dolichol, a fatty molecule crucial in the assembly of cellular proteins.

Important to All Cells

Cholesterol is an essential structural component of all cells, needed to ensure membrane integrity, permeability, and fluidity. It has a key role in the transport of molecules into the cell, interaction between cells, and, importantly for PN readers, nerve conduction.

The amount of cholesterol in the central nervous system is about ten times greater than any other organ. If you are trying to rebuild a damaged nervous system, does it make sense to take away the supply of essential building blocks through cholesterol-lowering drugs?

Cholesterol is also the precursor to a variety of sex hormones, including testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen, and adrenal-gland hormones, such as the stress hormone cortisol. Given that spinal-cord injury (SCI) already compromises production of function-restoring testosterone, we  can only speculate on the additional impact of pushing down the levels of cholesterol, a testosterone precursor.

In addition, the sun’s ultraviolet rays convert cholesterol in skin into vitamin D, a vitally important nutrient for people with SCI and MS. Finally, the liver uses cholesterol to produce bile, needed for fat digestion in the small intestine.

Low Problems

Several adverse health consequences are connected to having too low cholesterol.

Mental Health: Research suggests people with too low cholesterol have more depression, commit more suicide, exhibit greater violent and aggressive behaviors,  and relapse more in cocaine addiction. They also  have reduced attention, concentration, and word fluency, and in the elderly, have more cognitive decline and dementia.

Lower cholesterol levels lead to decreased brain levels of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that Prozac-like drugs attempt to stimulate. 

Infectious Disease: In a study involving more than 100,000 subjects, individuals with lower cholesterol were admitted more often to a hospital due to infectious disease.

Longevity: Low cholesterol in people who are elderly increases risk of dying. A study published in the prestigious journal Lancet concluded that in these individuals “long term persistence of low cholesterol concentration actually increases the risk of death.”

Heart Disease: In spite of the hype otherwise, many studies indicate little correlation between cholesterol levels and heart disease.

Although Americans have higher cholesterol than the Japanese, the arteries of Japanese people were just as atherosclerotic—i.e., factors other than cholesterol must be involved.

Norwegian Study

It’s difficult to summarize the numerous studies whose results counter the cholesterol-lowering dogma. In one recent example, researchers investigated the relationship between cholesterol levels and mortality rates in more than 52,000 Norwegians.

Although cholesterol has been subdivided into “good” and “bad” depending upon its sequestering into greater complexes (e.g., high- and low-density lipoprotein), investigators focused on total cholesterol levels because health policies use this number to determine treatment.

Using official guidelines, 75% of Norwegian adults are considered at risk for cardiovascular disease and, hence, “in need of clinical attention.”  About 47% of the subjects were men and 53% women. Ages ranged from 20 to 74. Subjects were followed for ten years.

The relationship of mortality to cholesterol levels were gender dependent. For men, mortality followed a U-shaped pattern. Specifically, the greatest mortality was observed in men with the lowest cholesterol levels, the least mortality noted in men with intermediate cholesterol levels, and in-between mortality documented in men with the highest cholesterol levels.  

With women, it followed a downward, linear pattern, in which cholesterol levels were inversely related to death rates. Specifically, as levels increased, the risk of death decreased; i.e., more cholesterol was associated with living longer. In men and women, the highest death rate was associated with the lowest cholesterol levels.

The investigators diplomatically concluded that given their results, “clinical and public-health recommendations regarding the dangers of cholesterol should be revised. This is especially true for women, for whom moderately elevated cholesterol (by current standards) may prove to be not only harmless but even beneficial.”

Undiplomatically, it is yet another stumble of a public-health sacred cow.

A Matter of Time

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

The notion that cholesterol needs to be lowered at all costs is so passionately embraced by medical authorities that any suggestion otherwise, regardless of merit, is virulently opposed. But it’s just a matter of time before a more balanced viewpoint will prevail.

Another article will more closely look at the critical role of cholesterol in the nervous system and review the multitude side effects, including neurological, associated with using cholesterol-lowering drugs.



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