Why ‘bad’ cholesterol isn’t cholesterol at all, and how to get more of the good stuff

By Alive & Well


In the past couple of decades, cholesterol has become a bit of a punching bag in the West, and it’s true that for some people it can become problematic. And yet breast milk has very high cholesterol levels, and has been working fine for babies for, well, a few millennia at least. So how do you separate the good from the bad?

Cholesterol is essential for good health

Credit: Ewa Koska

Its main purpose in life is to maintain the shape of the approximately 50 trillion (give or take) cells in your body[1]. It also helps protect the myelin sheaths of our nerve fibres, and is an essential precursor for reproductive hormones and, later in life, general health.

So it’s definitely not the enemy, and it’s important to ingest the kind of fats that ensure your body makes enough cholesterol (olive oil in particular has a protective association with heart health – see my last post to find out more about which oils to use when you’re cooking).

‘Bad’ cholesterol is not cholesterol at all

Cholesterol is carried around in your blood by lipoproteins known as VLDL, LDL and HDL. They are:

  • very large particles called Very Low Density Lipoproteins (VLDL)
  • small particles called High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) which protect against heart disease and are often referred to as ‘good cholesterol’
  • medium-sized particles called Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) which are associated with heart disease, chest pains, strokes and heart attacks, and are commonly referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’ – but they’re not actually cholesterol, they’re lipids.

So it’s these lipids, LDLs, that cause problems. And according to the past 100 years of research, it’s not the concentration of LDLs in the blood that’s the culprit, it’s whether or not they’re oxidised[2]. Studies have also shown that people who consume more meat and/or poly-unsaturated fatty acids tend to have more easily oxidised LDLs[3], and the longer the LDL circulates in the blood, the more time it has to oxidise.

Bring your body back into balance naturally

If you have high levels of oxidised LDLs, there are lots of things you can do to minimise them and boost your ‘good’ cholesterol at the same time:

  • Increase your intake of antioxidants, especially CoQ10 and Vitamins C and E
  • Balance your levels of poly-unsaturated fatty acids – so eat moderately things like nuts, seeds, fish, algae and krill
  • Reduce your intake of fried red meat in particular, and meat products generally
  • Eat more of the foods that lower LDLs naturally, like apples (2-3 a day), oats, barley, beans, carrots (3 a day), chilli peppers, eggplant/ aubergine, garlic (5 fresh cloves of raw garlic minced into other foods daily – try parsley and mint to deal with any ‘garlic breath’!), spinach, onions, sweet potato/yams, natural yoghurt and raw milk
  • Make sure your LDL receptors are working at maximum capacity so the LDLs are put to good use rather than floating around in your bloodstream for too long – things like curcumin, a component of turmeric, can be helpful here[4].

A natural approach might save you from the side-effects of drugs like statins – the current drug of choice for GPs in the Western world – which can include mild to sometimes drastic effects on skeletal muscles[5, 6] and diabetes [7]. I know one pharmacist who “wouldn’t touch statins with a barge pole”. Food-as-medicine gurus like Don Tolman, on the basis of research conducted by John Hopkins University in the U.S., also suggest an association with cancers, gallstones, and heartburn.

So before you resort to statins, find out what your oxidised LDL level is and see if you can heal your body naturally – especially if you have familial hypercholesterolemia, an inherited condition of very high cholesterol.

What’s your experience with cholesterol? Have you used a natural approach to lowering your LDLs? Or have you found the drugs helped?

[1] Please note this is an estimate. Various sources have ranges from 10 trillion to 100 trillion cells in each human body. And our bodies are in a constant state of programmed cell death and renewal, so even within an individual the number of cells is constantly evolving. Suffice to say, there are lots of cells in your body and cholesterol is required to keep each of them in shape.

[2] Tsimikas S, Brilakis ES, Miller ER, McConnell JP, Lennon RJ, Kornman KS, Witztum JL, Berger PB. Oxidized phospholipids, Lp(a) lipoprotein, and coronary artery disease. N Engl J Med. 2005;353(1):46-57.

[3] Nenseter MS, Drevon CA. Dietary polyunsaturates and peroxidation of low density lipoprotein. Curr Opin Lipidol. 1996;7(1):8-13.

[4] Dou X, Fan C, Wo L, Yan J, Qian Y, Wo X. Curcumin up-regulates LDL receptor expression via the sterol regulatory element pathway in HepG2 cells. Planta Med. 2008 Sep;74(11):1374-9.

[5] Di Stasi SL, MacLeod TD, Winters JD, Binder-Macleod SA. Effects of statins on skeletal muscle: a perspective for physical therapists. Phys Ther. 2010 Oct; 90(10):1530-42

[6] Fine DM. Statin-related muscle toxicity. Adv Stud Med. 2003 Nov-Dec; 3(10): 554-60, 547, 551 (47 ref)

[7] http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/21/cholesterol-drugs-linked-with-diabetes-risk/?scp=4&sq=cholesterol&st=nyt (cited 28 July 2011).