Cholesterol: We’ve Been Wrong All Along

credit: Flickr CC

credit: Flickr CC

If you’ve spent any time thinking about your cholesterol, you know the basics: LDL is bad. HDL is good. But beyond that glib distinction, numerous studies and real-world outcomes show that we still have much to discuss.

For many years, we’ve known that cholesterol plays a key role in cardiovascular health. No one will argue against the fact that high cholesterol is associated with a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. But as science advances, so does our understanding of cholesterol and how it affects the body. What we’ve thought about cholesterol for decades may have been incorrect, requiring us—along with researchers and healthcare professionals—to rethink our position and take an unbiased look at new data.  

Here’s what we know. There’s LDL (low-density lipoprotein), the “bad” cholesterol that circulates in the bloodstream and can build up in the arteries, forming plaque that makes the blood vessels narrow, less flexible, and prone to forming clots. And then there’s HDL (high-density lipoprotein), the “good” cholesterol that sweeps cholesterol from the arteries.

Is lower cholesterol better?

While it can be clearly seen that high LDL leads to an increased risk of heart disease, whether it follows that low LDL reduces the risk is much more ambiguous.

Over the past several decades, the battle against high cholesterol became a war of “how low can you go?” as more and high-powered statins were developed. These drugs were able to get LDL levels so low that the AHA and other cardiovascular health guidelines were changed to meet the rapidly plunging standards. This reaction makes a lot of sense: if higher is worse, then lower is likely better. But in light of recent findings, this way of thinking may be doing more harm than good.

Cholesterol is found in the body for a reason. It makes up the cellular membrane of every cell in the body, helps in the synthesis of vitamin D and other hormones, and it fuels and protects the brain. When cholesterol levels are taken too low, it puts the body at risk of dysfunction.

Low cholesterol (often defined as TC <150 mg/dL) has been linked to mental issues like depression, anxiety, and prolonged anger. It may increase the risk of stroke, and lead to problems with cognition and memory. Because of the role cholesterol plays in hormone creation, having levels too low can also lead to vitamin D deficiency and hormone imbalance. Low cholesterol is also thought to increase the risk of some cancers, and may result in premature birth or low birth weight in pregnant women.

On the flip side, it is thought that inflammation in the body causes cholesterol levels to increase, so cholesterol can help the body heal and repair. If inflammation is tied to heart disease, what are the implications about cholesterol? Is there a “sweet spot” between too high and too low where cholesterol protects the body without causing arterial buildup? Or is the mechanism something else entirely?

Join us to learn new ways of thinking about cholesterol, and how to change your habits for even more targeted and effective cardiovascular health – check out this informative webcast with WellnessFX physician Spencer Nadolsky!

If you want to test the particle size and number (along with a basic overview of other cardiovascular health indicators including HDL, LDL, Triglycerides), we created an Advanced Heart Health WellnessFX panel.

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The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.