The Truth about Cholesterol

– Sonya Nobbe, ND

I’ve met a few patients recently who are understandably confused about high cholesterol levels and what to do about them. Recent media reports highlight the poorly acknowledged potential side effects of Statin drugs (e.g. Lipitor, Crestor), including muscle pain and amnesia. Recent research suggests that mild muscle damage due to Statins is likely quite common and may not show up on standard blood tests.  When do the benefits of these pharmaceuticals outweigh the risks?  Is it possible to manage high cholesterol levels without drugs

A common misperception is that cholesterol is a “bad” thing.  In fact, your liver makes cholesterol because it is essential for life.  Your body requires it for numerous functions including hormone production and nerve protection.  Cholesterol only becomes a “bad” thing when levels are so high that it generates inflammation in your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.  Though high cholesterol levels may be a result of poor lifestyle choices (such as little exercise and high-fat meals), high levels may also occur secondary to low thyroid function, diabetes, liver disease and kidney disease.  Numerous drugs can also elevate cholesterol, including some diuretics, beta-blockers, (both of these may be prescribed to reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors) and the birth control pill.  Addressing these things first is sometimes all that’s required to reduce high cholesterol levels.

Statins are a modern preparation of a 2000-year old Chinese medicine called red rice yeast extract.  Both medicines reduce the liver’s ability to synthesize cholesterol and studies reproducibly show that both can significant reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.  From a naturopathic perspective however, high cholesterol levels are a symptom of an imbalance.  Ignoring this root imbalance is a missed opportunity for improving your overall health and may lead to other less known risk factors.  In fact, some dissidents argue that though reducing cholesterol levels with Statins statistically reduces risk of heart attack and stroke, it doesn’t ensure a longer lifespan or improved quality of life. 

The good news is that Dr. David Jenkins of the University of Toronto developed the Portfolio Diet, which includes a collection of foods that work synergistically to change how your body metabolizes cholesterol.  High-quality clinical studies show that this diet reduces cholesterol just as well as Statin medications and the only “side-effects” include probable additional reduced risk for diabetes and cancer.  In other words, you can lower your cholesterol levels with diet alone. Weight-loss and increased exercise is not required for this outcome, though desirable for some people.  The diet recommendations include almonds, soy protein, whole-grain oats, and a plant ingredient called sterols.  A tailored naturopathic prescription combines this with other foods, supplements, and botanicals that match your particular balance of cholesterol, since various ratios of triglycerides, HDL, and LDL are associated with different kinds of health risks.

In the end, the “truth” about cholesterol is different for everyone, and is only as good as the most up-to-date research.  Educate yourself about the risks and benefits of each type of treatment and enlist the help of a healthcare practitioner who is willing to discuss the many options available for reducing high cholesterol levels.

You may find this and more of my articles published in Within Kingston Magazine.