Cholesterol Myths | 10 things you might not know about cholesterol

I went for my annual blood test the other day. I do a full in-depth panel once a year and book myself in at the same time as I book my car for its annual MOT. I decided long ago that if my car needs an overhaul to flag the bits and pieces that aren’t working as well as they should, then I certainly need one too.

The blood test looks at around 60 different markers - kidney and liver function, uric acid levels, blood cells, vitamin D, iron, thyroid hormones - the list goes on and on. My NHS doctor won’t authorise it, so I go to a private lab - expensive, but for me peace of mind is preferable to several new summer dresses that I will hardly wear. To my huge delight (because it shows all those supplements are working) every one of my results was in range. All healthy and happy - except one. Cholesterol was elevated.

And the doctor who was going through it all with me told me I really needed to bring it down. Told me to give up red meat, eggs, dairy, cheese in particular, and then broached the looming threat of statins. I was flabbergasted - and then irritated, and then as I mulled it all over in my head, silent too, because I knew I was going to keep schtum and ‘take’ his advice. Just because it’s easier than arguing with a doctor and the day was a lovely sunny one.

But afterwards, thinking about it further, I decided it was imperative I sit down and write this blog, in the hope that those of you for whom cholesterol is an issue, and to whom statins may already be a reality, might read this and consider the latest scientific research carefully.

It’s still a lovely sunny day, and I would rather be out in it, but there are a few cholesterol concepts that need to be clarified, and facts that are now proven that somehow don’t get shared.

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For decades now the majority of GPs have told their patients that high levels of cholesterol are damaging to your health. They link all increases to certain ‘cholesterol baddies’ – eggs and cheese in particular - and will tell you that the higher your HDL, the lower your risk of heart problems, and the higher your LDL, the greater.  They describe the two forms memorably for the rest of us, as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol.

Look further afield, however, and the story is very different. There is, in fact, no evidence that connects fatty foods with high cholesterol levels, or high cholesterol levels with heart disease. 

And take a look at the Blue Zones, the areas of the world where the people regularly live happily and healthily to more than 100 years old. One of the common denominators that links them all is that they have high cholesterol levels - not obviously a life threatening problem therefore. Be aware too that 'safe' levels of cholesterol have been repeatedly lowered in the UK over the last few decades based on no obvious scientific evidence, and standard medical procedure is now to keep people on statins for the rest of their lives. Do your own research carefully before you join them....

What you need to know about cholesterol

1 Cholesterol is not a bad thing: It’s a very good thing. Your body makes it in quantity, mainly in your liver and your gut, because it is essential for almost all your body’s functions: for hormone production, for digestion, to keep your memory sharp and your brain capable. It boosts your central nervous system and your cells. You really really need it. With levels that are too low, things stop working properly and without any cholesterol you would be dead. It’s that simple.

2 There is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol. The medical profession has coined the terms to describe HDL and LDL. But neither of them are in fact cholesterol at all - simply lipoproteins that carry the cholesterol around your body. Dr Zoe Harcombe, who writes a brilliant blog on the subject (drzoeharcombe.com) prefers to think of HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) and LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) as tiny ‘taxis’, simply ‘driving’ cholesterol, triglyceride, phospholipids and protein around, delivering whatever is needed to your cells and arteries.

3 High cholesterol does not cause high rates of heart disease. The image of the artery clogged by saturated fats is outdated. There is no link at all between eating a high saturated fat diet and having high blood cholesterol levels.There is no evidence that connects fatty foods with high cholesterol levels, or high cholesterol levels with heart disease - or stroke or Type 2 diabetes.

Dr Malcolm Kendrick analysed World Health Organisation (WHO) data, comparing the seven countries in the world with the lowest saturated fat intake to the seven countries with the highest saturated fat intake. His findings? “Every single one of the seven countries with the lowest saturated fat consumption has significantly higher rates of heart disease than every single one of the countries with the highest saturated fat consumption.”

In fact, the reverse is true, eating more rather than less fat was found to slow atherosclerosis, and researchers found that it was carbohydrate, not fat, that increased the artery blocking problem. They concluded that cholesterol is a sign of chronic inflammation in the body, and the best way to reduce it is simply to eat proper whole foods and walk briskly for half an hour a day.

4 High cholesterol is not linked to higher death rates: No research proves that. There is instead a significant association between higher cholesterol levels and lower numbers of deaths, and the reverse, low cholesterol levels and higher death levels for men. There is an even clearer pattern for women.

The PURE study which looked at the diet of more than 153,000 people in relation to cardiovascular disease levels for over 7 years found instead that high carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality.

5 Levels of ‘normal’ cholesterol levels have been brought down: Did you know that these have been repeatedly reduced by the medical community in the U.K. over the past decades? Looking globally, rates of total high cholesterol vary widely - from 73 percent in Bulgaria to 24 percent in Finland, with a wide range in between. A study published in ‘Circulation’ suggests that this 'may be due to differences in clinical guidelines’. The question then may be what - or who - dictates those differences? Perhaps a combination of the pharmaceutical companies statin pushing agenda and our doctors appreciation of their much needed research donations? Lipitor alone has brought in more than £100 billion in funds for Pfizer since 1997.

6 Statin statistics: The latest research shows that even if you are in the highest risk group possible (male, older and have already had a heart attack) and are put on statins for 5 years, for every 100 patients, 1.8 men will live, on average, an extra 6 months and 98.2 will gain no benefit at all. A further study in 2015 showed that you can be on statins for years - the tendency now is to encourage you to stay on them for the rest of your life - and yet at the end of it all, only gain an additional 3 days of life.

7 Statin side effects: According to the people who take them, statins often come with distressing side effects. Many of the doctors whose research the pharmaceuticals fund, insist that the reports of joint and muscle aches, strange rashes, mental health problems and more, are over-stated and that side-effects are few and far between. Yet Lipitor’s own sales leaflet tells a different story. They state that 1 in 10 will experience side effects that include liver damage, painful bones, loss of memory, loss of libido, nose bleeds, allergic reactions and inflammation, blood sugar rises, headaches and serious digestive problems.

8 Long term statin prescription: There is no research that shows you gain any benefits at all taking statins for cholesterol over the age of 70.

9 ‘Cholesterol’ blood tests are not very accurate: Total cholesterol levels in particular are known to be out by as much as 19% and the LDL and HDL that they measure in the blood cholesterol test are lipoproteins and not cholesterol at all.

10 When you are stressed, or ill or pregnant, your cholesterol levels will be higher than usual, so don’t accept any cholesterol readings in those situations as ‘normal’. (That’s another reason why you need to get your ‘Health Baseline’ to track and compare your cholesterol ‘normal’)

 

More and more cardiologists and well informed doctors are changing their minds about cholesterol. Make sure your doctor is one of them.

 

 

 


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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. 

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