| Food & Diet

Cholesterol Collusion

By Tyler Woodward

Contrary to what you've been told, high cholesterol Does Not Cause heart disease. In fact, having high cholesterol levels may actually improve your health.

Key Takeaways: 

What Is Cholesterol:

what is cholesterol

Cholesterol is described as a “waxy” lipid, as it does not dissolve in water.  Lipids are very similar structurally to fat. In fact fats are actually a type of lipid, but lipids are not a type of fat (like a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square). Cholesterol is most well known for its association with causing atherosclerosis or heart disease. Unaware to many people cholesterol serves a ton of biological functions in the body including:

  • Regulates the “fluidity” of the cell membrane and the mitochondria - basically helps to control what enters and leaves the cell
  • Involved in cell growth & reproduction
  • Involved in the activation of genes
  • Precursor to the steroid hormones, (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, ect,) vitamin D and bile acids (needed to digest fat)

CHOLESTEROL HORMONES

*Above graphic is extremely simplified*

When people refer to cholesterol they are most commonly referring to the cholesterol transporting proteins, LDL and HDL cholesterol. These proteins are responsible for transporting cholesterol throughout the body. 

  • Total Cholesterol - The sum of your LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol
  • LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) Cholesterol - The “bad” cholesterol and is responsible for transporting cholesterol molecules to the cell to be used for many of the functions listed above
  • HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) Cholesterol - THE “good” cholesterol and transports cholesterol to the liver where it is said to be “excreted” from the body. In reality, the cholesterol is broken down into bile acids which are transported to the intestines and gallbladder to aid in the digestion process. Only 1-2% of these bile salts are lost daily and excreted by the body as feces. And whatever amount  of cholesterol the body excretes will be replaced by new cholesterol formed in the liver or consumed through your diet. So your cholesterol levels basically remain constant.

At this point, you might be wondering why HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol are called “good” and “bad” cholesterol, when they both have a number of “good” or necessary functions in the body. This is because high levels of LDL cholesterol relative to HDL cholesterol has been associated with heart disease (CVD) and atherosclerosis. 

First, let’s establish that an association or a correlation does not equal a causation. In fact, it was recently established that neither total cholesterol (TC) nor LDL cholesterol causes atherosclerosis or contribute to the “hardening” of the arteries. In fact they found in this literature review that in certain studies people with low total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol had a higher rate of mortality.  

So what gives? Why are we still blaming cholesterol for heart disease and the formation of plaque in our arteries when they aren’t linked?

Cholesterol Collusion

Cholesterol Heart Disease

Well, the honest answer is that you’ve been duped. For the last 50 or so years you’ve been marketed to by the seed industry that the predominantly “saturated fats” found in animal meats are bad and polyunsaturated fats found in plants are good. You’ve even been told that the polyunsaturated fats like omega-3’s and omega-6 fatty acids are essential to your diet. All because polyunsaturated lowers your levels of LDL cholesterol, but contrary to popular belief this is not a good thing. 

This study shows low levels of LDL cholesterol have been found to be strongly associated with the increased risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. Polyunsaturated fats have also been associated with a host of other diseases. 

What Are Polyunsaturated Fats?

Fatty Acid Spectrum

Polyunsaturated fats are fatty acids that have multiple (poly) double bonds (bonds are what connects two atoms together) in their structure. Compared to monounsaturated fats which have one double bond and saturated fats which have no double bonds. Contrary to what you might expect, double bonds are actually much less stable than single bonds.

Double Bonds Explained: 

There are two main elements in fats: carbon and hydrogen. Carbon has 4 open spots to form bonds with other atoms. Let’s imagine these bonds like a parking garage that has four spots. If the parking garage is full, it will have one car per parking  spot and be completely stable. A double bond is like the equivalent to one car taking up two parking spaces and paying for 1.5 spots. This is better than having an empty spot, but not as great as being full. If an opportunity comes to fill all four spots at full price, the owner would be silly not to take it. Triple bonds are the least stable and are the equivalent to one car taking up three spots and paying for let’s 1 ¾ spots. Again, this is better than two empty spots, but is a temporary solution that will not work long term. It’s all about stability. 

The more double bonds present in the fat the less stable it is and the more likely it is to be broken apart. Due to the high body temperature of humans, double bonds are very easily broken apart and triple bonds barely exist in humans. And you can actually see this difference in stability by comparing different fats/oils. 

Vegetable or seed oils (polyunsaturated fats) are all liquid at room temperature, avocado and olive oil (monounsaturated fats) are normally solid till about 60 degrees and coconut oil and animal fats (saturated fats) melt around 80 degrees. Interestingly enough, the lifespan of coconut oil is said to be over 24 months even when it's stored at room temperature. Comparatively, if you leave avocados (monounsaturated fats) out for even a few hours at room temperature they begin to go rancid, which is literally the breaking down of the double bonds in front of your own eyes.

Read More: The Nonessential, "Essential" Fatty Acids

What happens when these double bonds are broken apart?

Fatty Acid Chains

When the double bond is oxidized or broken apart and it releases a free radical into the cell. You may have heard of free radicals and their association with stress, inflammation and disease. Particularly free radicals directly result in “oxidative stress”, to which you need an “antioxidant” to cancel out the free radical or “oxidant” and the stress that it induces on the body. While you could theoretically just consume a ton of antioxidants to cancel out the free radicals from polyunsaturated fats, wouldn't it make more sense to just avoid the polyunsaturated fats in the first place?

I find it rather ironic that the health benefits of polyunsaturated fats are so widely accepted when their chemical cousin “trans fats” are just a less stable version and are now illegal in the US. Trans fats can actually be polyunsaturated or monounsaturated if they have multiple double bonds. Trans fats just refers to the type of double bond that forms which is much less stable compared to regular “cis” unsaturated fats. In the parking lot analogy, this would be like one car taking up two spots, while also managing to block  the other cars in. Remember, the less stable the molecule is the more likely it is to be oxidized or broken apart. 

Now let’s revisit cholesterol… 

Cholesterol Structure:

cholesterol structure

Cholesterol varies from regular fatty acids discussed before because it is formed in a ring-like structure as seen above. Similar to monounsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol contains one double bond. The ring structure in cholesterol helps to stabilize or “protect” the double bond, but it  still has the potential to get oxidized/broken apart and release a free radical. 

In people with a high-functioning metabolism or dare I say, “healthy metabolism”, cholesterol has a short “lifetime” because it's consumed more or less as fast as it's produced. So it has a much smaller likelihood of being oxidized (broken apart) and even if this does happen it’s only in the bloodstream for a short period of time. 

In people with an underactive thyroid or “slow” metabolism, cholesterol can build up in the bloodstream and remain there for longer than normal. This puts cholesterol at a much higher risk of being oxidized and causing damaging effects.. When you undergo stress it causes the release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream. Free fatty acids are the breakdown products of stored fats that get released into the bloodstream. If these free fatty acids are from polyunsaturated  fats then they are highly susceptible to being oxidized/broken apart. High amounts of free fatty acids in the bloodstream significantly increases the likelihood of cholesterol being oxidized. 

Remember, it's been established that cholesterol does not cause heart disease.  But a high ratio of LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol can serve as a warning sign that you may be at risk for heart disease.

Interestingly enough, the size of your LDL cholesterol proteins directly affects the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis/ heart disease. The bigger the LDL protein, the decreased chance of developing heart disease. This is most likely due to the fact that the larger LDL molecules have a larger surface area, so their double bond is much less likely to come in contact with free radicals compared to small LDL molecules. The size of LDL cholesterol has been shown to decrease with age and if it is exposed to estrogens. On the other hand, diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol have been found to produce larger LDL cholesterol molecules and also increase HDL or “good” cholesterol.

The biggest irony of them all is that in metabolically healthy people, cholesterol can actually serve as a protective molecule aiding in digestion, detoxification and the removal of free radicals from the body. 

Additionally, if men want high testosterone/DHT levels and women want high progesterone levels, it would make a lot of sense to want high total cholesterol levels since cholesterol is the precursor to all these hormones. Many dieticians or nutritionists will make the argument that your body is capable of producing its own cholesterol, so you don’t have to get through your diet. Although I would question if the body is capable of producing enough cholesterol on its own to produce high levels of the protective hormones (progesterone, pregnenolone, testosterone, DHT).

Read More: 10 Signs of Low Testosterone | Hypogonadism

Cholesterol Is A Clue:

Lastly, I’d like to note one last idea that cholesterol on its own is a poor measure of health. It’s a single metric or number in the grand scheme of your body’s health. There are many other metrics that should be taken along with cholesterol levels to see this “bigger picture” including:

  • Fasted triglycerides (fat cells) level
  • Albumin (transporter protein) Levels
  • Fasted blood glucose/sugar levels
  • Full-panel thyroid hormone (T4, T3 & TSH) levels
  • Testosterone Levels (Free, Bound/SHBG levels, total)
  • Basal metabolic rate (your metabolism)
  • Lactate levels (levels of lactic acid in your blood)
  • Body Fat %

In all of my years watching TV I have yet to see Velma (Scooby Doo) nor Sherlock Holmes solve a mystery off a single clue. Cholesterol levels are a hint to seeing the bigger picture and you shouldn’t treat them as the be-all-end-all for heart health. If you want to solve your health mystery make sure to gather all your clues before assigning blame to one culprit.

Cholesterol Take-Home Notes:

  • High LDL or total cholesterol levels alone are a poor indicator of 
  • heart health
  • Polyunsaturated fats decrease your LDL and total cholesterol (TC), but this isn’t necessarily a good thing as low individuals with low LDL-C and TC are associated with increased risk of mortality. Especially after the age of 60.
  • Polyunsaturated fats also decrease the size of your LDL cholesterol molecules, making them more likely to be oxidized/broken apart
  • Saturated fats & dietary cholesterol have been shown to increase the size of your LDL cholesterol molecules and balance the ratio of HDL:LDL
  • A balanced ratio of HDL:LDL is likely more important than LDL being high on its own

If you want to take control of your health, look no further than our Thermo Diet Program. Designed by UMZU's founder, Christopher Walker, The Thermo Diet Program utilizes the bioenergetic theory of health to understand the human body maximize our cellular energy and metabolic rate. This provides your body with the energy it needs to rejuvenate itself, rid yourself o f chronic inflammation, and minimize oxidative stress.Thermo Diet

Conclusion:

My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. Remember, I am not a doctor or medical professional. I just look at the science and put it into layman’s term, so anyone can understand it and are able to make more educated decisions on these topics as a result. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time… be good

~Tyler Woodward