For the past 50 years, we have heard much of the evils of having high cholesterol. At some point most people would have had their levels checked by their doctor, would be aware that we have ‘good’ cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol, and that getting these numbers right on that test is important. If the numbers aren’t right, your doctor won’t be happy, and will most likely recommend a cholesterol-lowering drug.
However, as time goes by, more and more research is revealing that whilst cholesterol levels do play a role in heart health, it is far from being the entire picture, and in fact, cholesterol-lowering drugs may be missing the mark somewhat.1 These drugs are known to produce many side effects, including muscle pain and fatigue, and (quite worryingly) they have recently been shown to significantly increase the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.2 Whilst these drugs are effective at lowering the numbers on your blood test, what concerns this naturopath is that they are not actually addressing the cause – why cholesterol is high in the first place. As is the case with many other pharmaceuticals they are artificially masking the symptoms. Elevated cholesterol is simply a messenger, a sign that something is out of balance within the body, and rectifying the imbalance, in my opinion, should ALWAYS be the main focus.
You may be surprised to learn that our bodies need cholesterol, and it is absolutely essential to life – without it your body would not function. The body uses cholesterol to build strong cell membranes, to help you digest your food, and to make hormones. And LDL cholesterol (typically known as ‘bad cholesterol’) has recently been discovered to play a role in your immune defense against infection – it actually has the ability to bind to bacteria and prevent them from hurting you.3
What can cause high cholesterol?
- Yes, food, of course! We are probably all aware that high cholesterol can be related to diet, but possibly not in the way you have been told. The ‘old school of thought’ used to tell us to only eat foods that were low in saturated fat and cholesterol to keep our levels healthy, which inevitably has lead us down the not-so-healthy road of eating too many grain-based foods and refined carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice, cereals and sugars. However, relying on these foods as the basis of our diet means that we are less likely to be eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables – all of which provide nutrients and antioxidants that have a heart-protective effect. We are more likely to have higher levels of blood fats when eating a high-carbohydrate diet, which is one of the reasons why I recommend reducing the amount of bread, pasta, rice, cereals and sugar you eat in a day, and replacing some of these foods with lean protein (chicken, fish etc), nuts and seeds (which contain heart-healthy fats) and fresh vegetables. Quite interestingly, when researchers studied different diets, they found that a lower-carbohydrate diet to be better for the heart than a low-fat diet.4 And in case you were wondering, eggs have been vindicated – they do not increase your cholesterol levels at all.
- Inflammation in the body. Inflammation triggers the liver to increase the production of cholesterol, meaning that you are going to have a higher level on a test. Inflammation can be caused by digestive imbalances (particularly a lack of healthy gut bacteria), infection, stress or nutrient deficiencies. Quite interestingly, simply being overweight (even with no other health problems) puts the body into an inflamed state, which is why it is a good idea to try to lose weight to reduce your cholesterol levels.
- Magnesium deficiency. A good proportion of people don’t get enough magnesium in their diets (around one-third to one-half, in fact). Magnesium helps to reduce inflammation, balance blood pressure and, interestingly, it also has cholesterol-lowering effects. A study was performed where people received a magnesium supplement instead of a cholesterol-lowering medication, and it was found that the magnesium had a similar effect on cholesterol to the medication, without the side effects.5
- Low thyroid function. If your thyroid is out of balance, this can contribute to high cholesterol levels on a blood test. It is possible to have ‘sub-clinical hypothyroidism’ – where your thyroid is not functioning well but looks okay on a test.
What other natural strategies help to improve levels?
- Increasing fibre intake can help, so bump up your intake of fresh vegies, oats, nuts and seeds. Fibre helps the body remove extra cholesterol rather than recycling it back into the circulation, meaning that you are going to have less of it in your blood.
- Looking after your liver. The liver needs to be in good shape to process cholesterol properly, and if you are eating junk foods, and drinking a lot of alcohol, your liver is going to be pre-occupied with these things and putting cholesterol last on the list. Keep alcohol intake to 1-2 drinks per day at most.
- Get some exercise, particularly if you also experience a lot of stress or have a lot on your plate. Gentle walking, swimming or yoga are all beneficial for balancing blood levels.