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Understanding Cholesterol

By Greg Samples


Originally published in Everything Knoxville in February, 2014

If you’re like most people you probably know, approximately, what your serum cholesterol levels are. You might even know the levels and ratios of your "good" HDL (high density lipids), and "bad" LDL (low density lipids) cholesterol. You probably at some point in time reduced or considered reducing the amount of cholesterol in your diet. You did this because you know that high cholesterol is correlated with heart disease and arteriosclerosis.

Cholesterol is an essential, waxy, fatty molecule that all animals, including humans, produce. It is used to build cell membranes and, among other functions, is a precursor to bile production in the liver. It aids in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K, and is involved in the synthesis of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. The body needs it to function, and when dietary intake is decreased, bodily production is increased. Conversely, when ingested cholesterol is increased, the body compensates by reducing synthesis. Ingested cholesterol, however, is poorly absorbed by the bowel compared to synthesized cholesterol. Cholesterol is synthesized throughout the body but the liver accounts for the greatest amounts which are reabsorbed in the small intestine.

Emerging research is revealing that there is more to the story of heart disease than cholesterol. Yes, heart disease and arteriosclerosis are certainly the result of oxidized LDL particles building up on the inside of the artery wall, but this buildup is likely due to inflammation of the artery wall. The artery wall becomes inflamed whenever acidic elements in the blood are insufficiently buffered. LDL is called upon to be one of the buffers when the body releases the hormone resistin, which both increases LDL cholesterol and participates in the inflammatory response.

Animal food does contribute to heart disease, however this is not so much because of the cholesterol that it brings, but rather because it is acid forming in the body. It will contribute to the inflammation of the artery wall. But by far, the most inflammatory food that we eat is simple sugar. The more simple sugar we consume, the more oxidized LDL is needed to buffer the acid. The more sugar consumed, the more inflammation and damage to the artery wall occurs.

The good news is that when LDL levels are kept in check, HDL can actually remove some of the buildup of plaque on the artery wall, so no matter what your condition or age, you should make the transition to a less acid forming fare. If you are still young, you can prevent the problem, but if not, you can start reversing it.

The best way to reduce consumption of simple sugar is to eat a sizable portion of complex carbohydrate at every meal. Whole grains are the most abundant source. This will decrease your cravings for simple sugars between meals and keeps the blood sugar level more constant, rather than consisting of volatile ups and downs. Whole grains also contain niacin, which helps to restrict inflammation. Whole grains are the richest vegetable source of niacin, but it can also be found in avocados, leafy greens, and shiitake mushrooms. When you do have desserts, using sweeteners made from whole grains such a rice syrup, barley malt, or molasses instead of table sugar will help to impede that overly acidic condition.

So give your heart some love. Find a substitute for that sweet roll, candy bar, or sugary soft drink. Your arteries will love you for it.

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