Heart Disease is Not a Disease of Cholesterol

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Heart disease is NOT a disease of cholesterol. Why do we assume that it is? Probably because it’s been drilled into us for decades!! However, cholesterol is not the bad guy. Who is??? It’s our poor diet of highly processed foods! Let’s dig in…

In the 1950’s, the diet-heart hypothesis stated that cholesterol and saturated fats cause heart disease. Between poorly designed studies, government agencies, and powerful scientists, this hypothesis was pushed even though the science behind this connection was not well proven.

Americans have obsessed over low-fat and low cholesterol diets for decades working to push their weight and cholesterol down. In fact, the majority of your cholesterol is made by the body and VERY little actually comes from your diet. We ended up with a powerful message to reduce cholesterol from our diets when in reality diet cholesterol makes very little difference in heart disease.

Looking at stats on heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, we clearly have not achieved better health. More on history later, let’s talk first about what cholesterol actually does for you.

What does cholesterol do for you?
    - Cholesterol is a main component of your cell membrane - the outside barrier of all of your cells that controls what goes into and out of your cells. It’s like a gatekeeper that regulates travel of substances in and out. Without cholesterol, the cell membrane becomes too fluid and it can’t function properly.

    - Cholesterol is the precursor for your steroid hormones - meaning it is used as the building block to make all of your steroid hormones in the body. Steroid hormones include estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and cortisol.

    - Cholesterol is used to make vitamin D, your sunshine hormone! When sunlight hits your skin, cholesterol is converted to vitamin D. Find out more about vitamin D in this blog post.

    - Cholesterol is needed for proper immune system function.

    - Cholesterol helps make up your bile, which breaks apart fats that you eat during digestion.

Cholesterol is not the “bad” guy! How did it get such a bad reputation?

When we think about heart disease leading to heart attacks and strokes, really we are referring to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a disease where plaque builds up along the walls of arteries causing them to become narrow. As this narrowing continues, blood flow can become blocked to your organs. In the case of a heart attack, the blood flowing to the actual heart cells is blocked.

We’ve been lead to believe that cholesterol and saturated fats in our diet lead to the build up of these plaques, but this simply is NOT true.

Atherosclerosis develops when an irritant damages the lining of the blood vessels leading to chronic inflammation. If the irritant is constantly present, then the inflammation will continue to be present. Inflammation is the body trying to heal itself. However, if the root cause of the damage isn’t removed, the inflammation becomes chronic.

The inflammatory response will cause a build of up fats, cholesterol, calcium, and other debris found in the blood at the site of the damage. The presence of cholesterol in a plaque isn't a cholesterol problem because cholesterol is part of the inflammatory response at the site of damage. The real problem is the damage being caused by the irritant.

Let’s review - Damage to the blood vessel wall by an irritant causes an inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation at that site will lead to the building of plaque containing cholesterol and fats.

The fat and cholesterol in the plaque are chemically damaged. Damage can either happen at the site of the plaque by a process called oxidation or fats can also be damaged when they are highly processed or cooked at too high of a temperature.

What are the irritants that cause chronic inflammation?
    Emotional Stress
Your emotional state will ALWAYS play a role in chronic inflammation.

    Chemical Stress
We are constantly being exposed to chemicals and toxins. Toxins are any chemical that causes physical harm to the body. Where do these toxins come from?

    - Personal care products
    - Water/Air
    - Medications
    - Cleaning products
    - Laundry detergent and fabric softeners
    - Infections
    - Pesticides & herbicides
    - Heavy metals found in food sources
    - Smoking

    - Lack of proper nutrients
    - Consuming chemically damaged fats
    - Blood sugar issues

One of the biggest irritants is high blood sugar!!! When you eat too many processed carbohydrates, they are immediately converted to sugar and are absorbed quickly into the blood.

Your body will release insulin to move that sugar into your cells. When we eat too many processed carbs, we are constantly in a state of high insulin. This response is very damaging and causes chronic inflammation by increasing the number of free radicals that harm the lining of your blood vessels. Free radicals will cause oxidation of fats and cholesterol at the site of the plaque causing further damage - and continued chronic inflammation.

The problem with our modern diet isn't cholesterol and fats, but a problem with highly processed, refined carbs and sugars. The movement to reduce cholesterol and fats since the 1950's didn't reduce heart disease, diabetes or obesity because we replaced fats with highly processed carbs and sugar.

It’s not surprising that diabetic patients are twice as likely to have a heart attack or a stroke. Atherosclerosis is responsible for ~80% of all deaths in diabetic patients!

What about drugs that lower your cholesterol?

Statins, like Lipitor, are a common drug used to lower blood cholesterol levels. After digging into how atherosclerosis actually develops, it should be no surprise to you that studies show that this reduction doesn’t save you from a heart attack! Studies have shown that Lipitor has no benefit in decreasing heart attack risk in men over the age of 65 and no benefit for women at any age.

So, how are these claims made that statins reduce your risk of heart attacks? It’s all about the stats! Lipitor claims to reduce the chance of heart attacks by 36%. Sounds pretty good, right? Let’s look at that in detail...In a large clinical study on Lipitor, researchers showed that participants had a 3% chance of having a heart attack on a sugar or placebo pill, whereas participants on Lipitor only had a 2% chance of a heart attack.

If we break that down, that means for every 100 people in the study, three people had a heart attack on the placebo and 2 had a heart attack when taking Lipitor.

So, what does help???

To put it simply, lifestyle changes!!! Eliminating processed foods and refined sugars from your diet, reducing toxin exposure from your environment, quitting smoking, increasing exercise, decreasing your weight, and working on mindfulness!

We can’t ask doctors to prescribe medication to treat lifestyle induced diseases!

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