Cholesterol Plays Key Role in Cell Signaling
January 16, 2013
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By Dr. Mercola
Are you still under the impression that cholesterol is a dietary villain and a primary cause of heart disease? And do you avoid eating healthy animal foods like eggs, butter and grass-fed beef because of “high-cholesterol” fears?
It’s time for these pervasive myths to be laid to rest, as when you understand the truth about how cholesterol works in your body you’ll realize it’s not an enemy to your health, but instead plays an essential role in keeping your body functioning optimally.
Cholesterol Crucial for Healthy Cell Functioning
Cholesterol has been demonized since the early 1950's, following the popularization of Ancel Keys' flawed research. As a result, people now spend tens of billions of dollars on cholesterol-reducing drugs each year, thinking they have to lower this "dangerous" molecule lest they keel over from a heart attack.
But cholesterol has many health benefits. Recent research revealed, for instance, that cholesterol plays a key role in regulating protein pathways involved in cell signaling and may also regulate other cellular processes.1
It’s already known that cholesterol plays a critical role within your cell membranes, but this new research suggests cholesterol also interacts with proteins inside your cells, adding even more importance.
Your body is composed of trillions of cells that need to interact with each other. Cholesterol is one of the molecules that allow for these interactions to take place. For example, cholesterol is the precursor to bile acids, so without sufficient amounts of cholesterol, your digestive system can be adversely affected.
It also plays an essential role in your brain, which contains about 25 percent of the cholesterol in your body. It is critical for synapse formation, i.e. the connections between your neurons, which allow you to think, learn new things, and form memories.
In fact, there's reason to believe that low-fat diets and/or cholesterol-lowering drugs may cause or contribute to Alzheimer's disease. Low cholesterol levels have also been linked to violent behavior, due to adverse changes in brain chemistry, particularly a reduction in serotonin activity Furthermore, you need cholesterol to produce steroid hormones, including your sex hormones. Vitamin D is also synthesized from a close relative of cholesterol: 7-dehydrocholesterol.
Cholesterol is Necessary for Life Itself
Considering the fact that conventional medicine has been telling us that heart disease is due to elevated cholesterol and recommends lowering cholesterol levels as much as possible, it may come as a shock to learn that having too little cholesterol is actually a verifiable risk to your health. As Chris Masterjohn, who recently received his PhD in nutritional sciences from the University of Connecticut, explained, to get an idea of the importance of cholesterol you only need to look at what happens if you don’t have it…
"If we want to understand why cholesterol is really an incredibly important molecule and is really our friend rather than our enemy, I think what we should look at is the question, 'What happens without cholesterol?' he says.
...[L]ook at Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome or SLOS, which is a symptom of genetic deficiency in cholesterol. It's when people can't make enough cholesterol on their own. In order to actually have this full-blown syndrome, it's a recessive trait, which means you need a defective gene for cholesterol synthesis from your father, and you need one from your mother as well. Now, the number of people who carry this defective gene in the population is about one to three percent of the population.
However, the number of babies who are born with Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome is far lower than we would expect. ...It turns out that if [the fetus] has both of these genes and the unborn child can't synthesize its own cholesterol, then this usually results in spontaneous abortion. So right away we see that cholesterol is needed for life itself..."
In those rare cases where a baby is born with Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, the child is susceptible to and can present a wide range of defects, such as:
|Autism or mental retardation
||Failure to thrive
||Physical defects in hands, feet and/or internal organs
||Increased susceptibility to infection
Heart Disease May Even be Caused by a Cholesterol Deficiency
According to Dr. Stephanie Seneff:
"Heart disease, I think, is a cholesterol deficiency problem, and in particular a cholesterol sulfate deficiency problem..."
Through her research, she has developed a theory in which the mechanism we call "cardiovascular disease" (of which arterial plaque is a hallmark) is actually your body's way to compensate for not having enough cholesterol sulfate. She believes that cholesterol combines with sulfur to form cholesterol sulfate, and this cholesterol sulfate helps thin your blood by serving as a reservoir for the electron donations you receive when walking barefoot on the earth (also called grounding). She believes that, via this blood-thinning mechanism, cholesterol sulfate may provide natural protection against heart disease. In fact, she goes so far as to hypothesize that heart disease is likely the result of cholesterol deficiency — which of course is diametrically opposed to the conventional view.
Total Cholesterol Level is Not a Reliable Indicator of Your Heart Disease Risk
As the the leading causes of death in the United States, it’s important to monitor your risk factors for heart disease and make changes to your lifestyle accordingly. However, total cholesterol will tell you virtually nothing about your disease risk, unless it's exceptionally elevated (above 330 or so, which would be suggestive of familial hypercholesterolemia, and is, in my view, about the only time a cholesterol-lowering drug would be appropriate). Two ratios that are far better indicators of heart disease risk are:
- Your HDL/total cholesterol ratio: HDL percentage is a very potent indicator of your heart disease risk. Just divide your HDL level by your total cholesterol. This percentage should ideally be above 24 percent. Below 10 percent, it's a significant indicator of risk for heart disease
- Your triglyceride/HDL ratios: This percentage should ideally be below 2
Four additional risk factors for heart disease are:
- Your fasting insulin level: Any meal or snack high in carbohydrates like fructose and refined grains generates a rapid rise in blood glucose and then insulin to compensate for the rise in blood sugar. The insulin released from eating too many carbs promotes fat and makes it more difficult for your body to shed excess weight, and excess fat, particularly around your belly, is one of the major contributors to heart disease.
Your fasting insulin level can be determined by a simple, inexpensive blood test. A normal fasting blood insulin level is below 5, but ideally you'll want it below 3. If your insulin level is higher than 3 to 5, the most effective way to optimize it is to reduce or eliminate all forms of dietary sugar, particularly fructose, from your diet.
- Your fasting blood sugar level: Studies have shown that people with a fasting blood sugar level of 100-125 mg/dl had a nearly 300 percent higher risk of having coronary heart disease than people with a level below 79 mg/dl.
- Your waist circumference: Visceral fat, the type of fat that collects around your internal organs, is a well-recognized risk factor for heart disease. The simplest way to evaluate your risk here is by simply measuring your waist circumference. For further instructions, please see my previous article, Your Waist Size Can Be a Powerful Predictor of Hypertension and Other Chronic Diseases.
- Your iron level: Iron can be a very potent cause of oxidative stress, so if you have excess iron levels you can damage your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease. Ideally, you should monitor your ferritin levels and make sure they are not much above 80 ng/ml. The simplest way to lower them if they are elevated is to donate your blood. If that is not possible you can have a therapeutic phlebotomy and that will effectively eliminate the excess iron from your body.
Do You Need to Monitor Your Dietary Cholesterol Intake?
About 80-90 percent of the cholesterol in your body is produced by your liver, which has led to the faulty assumption that cholesterol from dietary sources can, and should, be avoided. Dr. Seneff actually believes it's difficult to get "too much" cholesterol in your diet, particularly in the standard American diet. But you may very well be getting too little, and that can cause serious problems. She points to the research by Weston A. Price, a dentist by profession who traveled all around the world studying the health effects of indigenous diets. Interestingly enough, many indigenous diets are shockingly high in dietary cholesterol based on today's conventional medical standards.
Cholesterol-rich foods like caviar, liver and the adrenal glands of bears were highly valued in some cultures that also had very low rates of heart disease and other modern diseases.
Dr. Seneff believes, as do I, that placing an upper limit on dietary cholesterol, especially such a LOW upper limit as is now recommended, is likely causing far more harm than good. You can get an idea of what types of cholesterol-rich foods to include in your diet by following my nutrition plan. As Masterjohn further pointed out:2
“Since we cannot possibly eat enough cholesterol to use for our bodies' daily functions, our bodies make their own. When we eat more foods rich in this compound, our bodies make less. If we deprive ourselves of foods high in cholesterol -- such as eggs, butter, and liver — our body revs up its cholesterol synthesis. The end result is that, for most of us, eating foods high in cholesterol has very little impact on our blood cholesterol levels.
In seventy percent of the population, foods rich in cholesterol such as eggs cause only a subtle increase in cholesterol levels or none at all. In the other thirty percent, these foods do cause a rise in blood cholesterol levels. Despite this, research has never established any clear relationship between the consumption of dietary cholesterol and the risk for heart disease… Raising cholesterol levels is not necessarily a bad thing either.”
How to Optimize Your Cholesterol Levels Naturally
The goal of the guidelines below is not to lower your cholesterol as low as it can go, but rather to optimize your levels so they're working in the proper balance with your body. Again, the majority of your cholesterol is produced by your liver, which is influenced by your insulin levels. Therefore, if you optimize your insulin level, you will automatically optimize your cholesterol. This is why my primary recommendations for safely regulating your cholesterol have to do with modifying your diet and lifestyle as follows:
- Reduce, with the plan of eliminating, grains and sugars in your diet. It is vitally important to eliminate gluten-containing grains and dangerous sugars especially fructose.
- Consume a good portion of your food raw.
- Make sure you are getting plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega 3 fats, such as krill oil. Research suggests that as little as 500 mg of krill per day may improve your total cholesterol and triglycerides and will likely increase your HDL cholesterol.
- Replace harmful vegetable oils and synthetic trans fats with healthful fats, such as olive oil, butter and coconut oil (remember olive oil should be used cold only, use coconut oil for cooking and baking).
- Include fermented foods in your daily diet. This will not only optimize your intestinal microflora, which will boost your overall immunity, it will also introduce beneficial bacteria into your mouth. Poor oral health is another powerful indicator of increased heart disease risk.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through appropriate sun exposure as this will allow your body to also create vitamin D sulfate—another factor that may play a crucial role in preventing the formation of arterial plaque.
- Exercise regularly. Make sure you incorporate high-intensity interval exercises, which also optimize your human growth hormone (HGH) production.
- Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol excessively.
- Be sure to get plenty of high-quality, restorative sleep.