High cholesterol is something that many Americans suffer from, and modern day medicine is very quick to write a statin drug prescription, tell you to avoid fatty foods and send you on your way. The issue with this approach is that it’s out of date and may not necessarily be the best approach at all.
Getting to the root cause of the high cholesterol is one of the first steps to reversing it, not necessarily taking medications which could result in unwanted side effects.
More and more research is coming out stating that high cholesterol may not be caused by eating fat but may be influenced by other factors such as inflammation, thyroid issues, and even blood sugar imbalances.
What is High Cholesterol?
Before we talk about what high cholesterol is, let’s take a look at what role cholesterol plays in your health. Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance that is made by the liver. The body requires cholesterol for proper cell functioning, nerve function, and our hormones need cholesterol as well. (1)
Cholesterol travels in lipids which are fatty acids of the blood stream which is also called plaque. The cholesterol can build up in the walls of the arteries which can pose significant health issues as it can reduce blood flow to various different areas of the body. This is where high cholesterol can pose a problem.
In a healthy person with no prevalence of high cholesterol, cholesterol levels are generally well balanced. In those with high cholesterol, there could be an imbalance in the HDL (high-density lipoproteins), and the LDL (low-density lipoproteins) Keep in mind that the LDL cholesterol is the kind you want less of, and the HDL is considered the healthy form of cholesterol. In those with high cholesterol, LDL levels may be high, and HDL levels may be low.
A healthy ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol would average around a 2:1 ratio. Total cholesterol should also be less than 200mg/dL, with LDL cholesterol being below 70 mg-100/dL, and HDL should be around 60 mg/dL.
Why Conventional Markers of High Cholesterol May Not be the Most Accurate
When you go to your primary physician and obtain blood work, they will generally check your total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL cholesterol levels. However, these markers may not be the best way to assess for cardiovascular risks. New research has found that these markers may not actually be associated with heart disease. (2)
It’s now thought that the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol as well as non-HDL cholesterol may be better predictors than just looking at total cholesterol levels or LDL cholesterol levels.
There are even newer cholesterol markers which may be even more predictive of cardiovascular risks such as the LDL particle number, HDL particle number, and lipoprotein(a) which give a much clearer idea as to total overall risk.
What are the Underlying Causes of High Cholesterol?
While modern day medicine has always pointed to a high-fat diet as being the primary cause of high cholesterol, the research is not there to support it. In functional medicine, we also look at high cholesterol as more of a symptom than a disease and attempt to get to the root cause of what’s causing this cholesterol spike so that we can stop it from happening.
Here are some of the underlying causes of high cholesterol:
- Metabolic dysfunction
- Chronic infections
- Gut dysbiosis
- Poor thyroid function: This even includes subclinical hypothyroidism.
- Blood sugar imbalances: Poor blood sugar balance can lead to thyroid issues which can result in high cholesterol
- Heavy metals or other environmental toxins
Why Fat May Not be to Blame
For years, saturated fats were seen as the cause of cardiovascular issues and increasing the risk for high cholesterol and heart disease, however, as it turns out sugar may be the real culprit here and another underlying cause of cholesterol issues.
Over the past couple of years, it’s become apparent that large sugar companies such as the Sugar Association have paid Harvard scientists large amounts of money to publish reviews on the research of sugar, fat, and heart disease. The sugar group handpicked the articles published and chose the ones that minimized the link between sugar, and it’s connection to heart health, and instead focused on the articles that negatively portrayed fats connection to heart health. These reports date back nearly 50 years, but it’s reported that the food industry still influences nutrition science today. We need to be aware that some reports may not be as transparent as one would think.
This plays an important role in understanding the connection between fat, sugar, and high cholesterol because the debate when it comes to these two food sources remains a discussion today. For years, American’s were urged to consume a low-fat diet in an attempt to promote heart health. However, many of these low-fat foods are loaded with sugar and only increase the prevalence of obesity and heart disease.
After speculations regarding sugar and research supporting its link to obesity, the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization, among other organizations are now warning that too much sugar can increase the risk of heart disease. (3)
Other studies have also shown that saturated fat generally does not affect blood cholesterol levels. (4) However, some people are very sensitive to saturated fat, and their cholesterol levels may increase with a higher saturated fat diet, while others it does not have this effect at all. It’s all a balance depending on each individual person. With that being said, the reason we worry about cholesterol is that high cholesterol levels have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, but studies have not found a link between saturated fats and heart disease either. Some studies have even found that consuming saturated fat was actually associated with a reduced risk of stroke.
So, the question comes down to, have we been avoiding fat for all the wrong reasons, and unintentionally adding toxic sugar to our diet? Keep in mind that sugar may be the ultimate culprit here and not fat. Reducing fat and adding sugar is the exact opposite of what we needed to do to lower cholesterol and support a healthy heart.
A Functional Medicine Approach to Treating High Cholesterol
A functional medicine approach when dealing with high cholesterol is much different from a conventional treatment option. The first step is to determine what is causing the high cholesterol. If it’s poor thyroid function, we need to address thyroid function before the cholesterol levels can improve. Same goes for heavy metal toxicity, or any gut infections, or inflammation. Even with genetically inherited high cholesterol, we will go through any other potential factors such as SIBO, and hypothyroidism to see if there may be something else triggering the high cholesterol. Addressing diet is also an important step. It’s less about focusing on removing fats from your diet, and more about removing inflammatory foods, and foods that may be triggering an immune and inflammatory response. Getting the entire body in balance can ultimately help balance cholesterol levels.
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Finally, I learned about functional medicine and found a practitioner that I hoped could help me. They ran specialized tests that were far different than I had ever had before. When I got the results back, it turned out I had candida, parasites, high cortisol, the Epstein Bar Virus and many food intolerances. I also had an issue with my thyroid that no one found before because they were using the conventional medicine lab ranges which are way too broad….which I now know is one of the leading causes of hypothyroid misdiagnosis.
I went through treatment of all of these things and it completely changed my life. I immediately lost the 30 pounds I had gained plus more, I had a lot more energy, and my brain fog was gone. I felt amazing and knew that I wanted to help people find the underlying causes of their symptoms and disease.
Dr. Axe. Lower Cholesterol Naturally and Fast. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/lower-cholesterol-naturally-fast/
Chris Kresser. (2017) RHR: The Functional Medicine Approach to High Cholesterol. Retrieved from https://chriskresser.com/functional-medicine-approach-to-high-cholesterol/
Chris Kresser. (2014) RHR: Does your diet affect your cholesterol level? Retrieved from https://chriskresser.com/does-your-diet-affect-your-cholesterol-level/
NY Times. (2016) How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html?_r=0