Natural solutions for your cholesterol
Six million people in the UK take statins everyday to reduce cholesterol and research published last year said that number needed to double. This post takes a look at the contentious debate about cholesterol and suggests some natural lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your cholesterol, your risk of heart disease and improve your overall health.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a vital biomolecule in your body. It is essential for your cell membranes, your hormones and the myelin sheaths that protect your neurons. It also plays an important role in countless other functions including cell signalling, immunity and the synthesis of Vitamin D.
Cholesterol is made from the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in the foods we eat. It is synthesised by all our cells but most abundantly by the liver, intestines and reproductive organs. It can also be derived to a smaller extent from eating animal products containing cholesterol.
The production and release of cholesterol into the blood stream, in the form of low-density lipoproteins or LDLs, is highly regulated by complex metabolic pathways. These pathways are influenced by cellular demand for cholesterol as well as the amount of fat, cholesterol and carbohydrate we eat.
Why is cholesterol a problem?
Research from the 1950s and 60s, involving force-feeding small mammals with cholesterol and saturated fat rich foods, showed that eating excessive amounts of these foods heightens levels of triglycerides (TG) and LDLs in the blood. High levels of both TGs and LDLs in the blood have been associated with heart disease*. However, greater attention has been given to LDLs as they stick to vessel walls, creating atherosclerotic plagues and increasing the risk of clots and heart disease.
A more recent review (October 2013) questions the role of fats alone in heart disease and points the finger at refined carbohydrates as well. Refined carbohydrates cause insulin levels in the blood to spike and it is the insulin that stimulates the production of cholesterol and consequently the amount of LDLs in the blood stream. When food companies removed saturated fats from their products, to make them taste nice, they added sugar instead. It could be the rise in refined carbohydrate consumption that has caused levels of heart disease to continue to rise.
The role of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) is uncontroversial, and their presence in the blood stream is seen as a good thing as they mop up excess LDLs and return them to the liver in order to excrete the cholesterol via bile and faeces.
* Heart disease = angina attacks, heart attacks & heart failure
What is a healthy cholesterol level?
The NHS recommends the following:
5mmol/L or less for healthy adults
4mmol/L or less for those at risk or a heart attack
3mmol/L or less for healthy adults
2mmol/L or less of those at risk
An ideal level is above 1mmol/L
Pharmaceutical solutions for reducing cholesterol levels
Several cholesterol reducing agents have been manufactured over the years but it is only statins that have been shown to reduce the risk of death from a heart attack. This suggests that it may not be the drug’s action on cholesterol that is responsible for its affects but potentially its anti-inflammatory action in blood vessels.
Statins reduce the production of LDLs by reducing the activity of an enzyme called HMG CoA reductase; an enzyme central to the production of cholesterol in all body cells.
Benefits of statins
A recent article in New Scientist (February 2017) nicely summarises the data on the potential health benefits of taking statins for five years, for the UK population:
High LDLs and no known heart disease
- 98% of people do not benefit at all from taking statins
- 0% lives saved
- 1.6% repeat heart attacks prevented
- 0.4% stroke prevented
High LDLs and known heart disease
- 96% of people do not benefit at all from taking statins
- 1.2% lives saved = 19,200 lives saved (over five years)
- 1.6% repeat heart attacks prevented
- 0.8% stroke prevented
This data suggests that statins can save the lives of a lot of people who already have heart disease or have had a transient ischaemic attack (mini-stroke). However, for people who have no known heart disease the arguments for taking statins do not hold water.
Problems with statins
- At least a quarter (depending on the research) of people experience adverse side effects in the form of muscular pain and inability to exercise, nerve and liver damage.
- The enzyme pathway inhibited by statins also interferes with the production of vitamins A, E & K and Coenzyme Q10 – leading to deficiencies and muscular pain.
- Statins are a false assurance as research suggests people who take statins frequently become more sedentary and eat a less-healthy diet once on medication. Those on the pro-statins side of the fence say that this doesn’t matter as long as cholesterol levels are being kept down. However, becoming more sedentary and eating a less-healthy diet can lead to other health problems including depression, obesity, diabetes, bowel disorders and cancer.
- Stains do not address the underlying reasons for high LDLs that can be caused by fats in the liver blocking natural systems for regulating cholesterol production or a high refined carbohydrate diet.
- High-cholesterol is not the only cause of heart disease since ~50% of people who suffer heart attacks have low levels of LDLs.
Natural solutions for reducing cholesterol levels
Changing your diet is the first line of defence in reducing your risk of heart disease by reducing cholesterol levels as well as the, all important, levels of inflammation in your body. Here are the five most important things to do:
- Avoid foods containing hydrogenated / trans fats.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates, especially those with a high glycaemic-index, they are usually nutritionally poor and lead to a spike in insulin levels and consequent cholesterol production.
- Reduce or avoid saturated fats in your diet – these are the hard fats found in animal products such as red meat (choose leaner cuts), butter, cheese and cream as well as the following vegetable oils – coconut oil, palm oil palm kernel oil and cocoa butter.
- Eat more vegetables and low sugar fruits – they’re full of antioxidants for reducing inflammation in your blood vessels (especially leafy greens and red & purple varieties) and they’re also an excellent source of soluble fibre that helps the elimination of cholesterol via the faeces.
- Eat a more Mediterranean diet full of mono & poly unsaturated fats including olive, sunflower and nut oils, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, soy (beans and bean curd – tofu), vegetables and fruits, and fish.
Start exercising – aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (exercise that increases your heart rate and gets you breathing deeply) at least three times a week. The benefits of exercise and cardiovascular disease prevention are well documented.
Stop smoking and keep alcohol consumption within recommended limits.
Cholesterol lowering herbs
These herbs have been shown to directly reduce levels of LDLs in the blood:
Allium sativum (garlic)
Capsicum annuum (chilli)
Olea europea (olive)
Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek)
Ganoderma lucidium (reishi mushroom)
Liver support herbs
These herbs have been shown to protect liver hepatocyte cells and improve the function of the liver:
Andrographis paniculata (andrographis)
Carduus marianus (milk thistle)
Cyanara scolymus (artichoke)
Taraxacum officinalis (dandelion)
Cardiovascular support herbs
These herbs have been shown to strengthen the blood vessels as well as reduce pressure on the heart:
Astragalus membranaceus (astragalus)
Crataegus monogyna (hawthorn)
Ginkgo biloba (ginkgo)
Ganoderma lucidium (reishi mushroom)
Although herbs are available from health food stores it is always best to consult a qualified herbalist as they are able to provide a holistic diagnosis of your health problems and support and monitor your health improvement.
It is almost always better to derive nutrients from foods rather than supplements, as the body can more easily absorb nutrients from foods. However, the following nutritional supplements have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease.
30 – 200mg per day
Coenzyme Q10 is an effective antioxidant that prevents oxidative modification of LDLs and reduces risk of atherosclerosis. Coenzyme Q10 is found in animal meats, particularly the heart, herring & trout.
Essential fatty acids
3.25g/day, comprising 1.9g EPA/day & 1.35g DHA/day
Fish oils are readily incorporated into atherosclerotic plagues, causing them to be thinner and less likely to rupture than without – suggesting a protective effect from fish oils. The most concentrated nutritional forms of EPA & DHA can be found in cold-water fish including salmon, mackerel, herring and halibut. ALA (the precursor to EPA & DHA) can be found in vegetable oils – flaxseed oil, canola & soy bean oil as well as walnut oil.
Vitamin B complex
Look for a high-dose combination, preferably in an active form
B-vitamins help to reduce numbers of LDLs and increase the beneficial HDLs. B-vitamins are found in green vegetables, whole grains and yeast (as well as fish, meat and eggs).
500 – 1000mg twice per day
Helps to prevent fat oxidation and reduces the tendency for platelet aggregation. Vitamin C is abundant in bell peppers (all colours), oranges, lemons, pineapple and green leafy vegetables (uncooked).
300 – 500mg twice per day
Plays an essential role in maintaining healthy muscles. Your heart is a muscle and your arteries are surrounded by muscle, helping to keep them elastic. Magnesium is ubiquitous in green leafy vegetables, grains and nuts (as well as meats & dairy products)
Give your LIVER a rest
The liver has an enormous task to fulfil every day. It is responsible for the breakdown of many chemicals (such as alcohol, caffeine and pharmaceutical drugs) as well as the maintenance of many metabolic functions. Congestion and sluggishness in the liver can lead to poor function, leaving you feeling below par with possible hormonal imbalances, hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and hyperlipidaemia (too much fat in the blood). The aim of the liver diet is to reduce the demand you make on your liver and allow it to regenerate and return to optimal function.
Foods to avoid
- Fatty foods – butter, cheese, milk, mayonnaise and cream
- Alcoholic drinks
- Coffee and other caffeinated drinks (except green tea which is beneficial to the liver)
- Pork, processed and cured meats
Foods to increase
- Grilled lean meats (chicken, turkey, lean beef) and fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut)
- Eat animal protein little and often – ideally in two small meals per day
- All vegetables – best eaten raw where appropriate, beetroot especially good
- All fruits – especially lemons, apples and pears (avoid citrus fruits except lemons)
- Aim to make fresh raw fruit and vegetables 40-50% of your consumption
- Complex grains – oats, wholemeal rice and buckwheat, wholegrain cereals, pulses and lentils
- Drink dandelion root tea
Image credit: Pexels.com