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How To Drop High Cholesterol

If you have high cholesterol, and want to avoid side effects of conventional cholesterol reducing medications (statins), we have good news for you.  You can reduce your elevated cholesterol naturally with acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and food therapy. 

Cholesterol Basics

Cholesterol is a type of waxy lipid (fat).  We need some cholesterol in our blood and in the cell membrane of every cell of the body.  We also need cholesterol to make “vitamin” D and all of the steroid hormones, including cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.

However, unless you were born with the rare genetic Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome (SLOS) that affects only 1 in 20,000 births, your liver and body cells can produce all the cholesterol you need on a daily basis from other nutrients.  Except for infants who require breast milk (which contains cholesterol), there is no dietary requirement for cholesterol during any stage of life, including childhood, adolescence, adulthood, pregnancy, lactation, or late in life.[1] 

In short, since dietary cholesterol is not a required nutrient, there is no such thing as dietary cholesterol deficiency.  In 1985, Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein received a Nobel Prize in Medicine for demonstrating the mechanism by which high blood cholesterol promotes atherosclerosis.[2]

What Causes High Cholesterol?

That's a good question.  For years it has been thought that the most important cause of high cholesterol is consumption of a diet too rich in saturated fats, cholesterol, and refined sugars, but not enough whole plant foods rich in fiber.  It is a little known fact that because cholesterol is part of the cell membranes of all animals, red meat, poultry and fish flesh all contain similar amounts of cholesterol (mg/100g).

If you take people who already have a very low cholesterol, then feed them foods rich in cholesterol such as whole eggs, the dietary cholesterol causes a very large increase in blood cholesterol.[3]   Also, if you put people on a zero cholesterol diet for a couple of weeks, their cholesterol plummets, and when you add cholesterol back to their diets, their blood cholesterol rises dramatically [4].

However, paradoxically, hunter-gatherers and primitive pastoralists eating large amounts of dietary cholesterol and sometimes saturated animal fats from animal products (meat, dairy) have very low cholesterol levels, half of northern European levels [5]. For example members of the Masai and Samburu pastoral tribes of Africa have mean cholesterol levels around 135-150 mg/dl despite diets composed primarily of meat and milk from grass-fed cattle.  Hunter-gatherer tribes also appear nearly immune to cardiovascular diseases, which indicates that some other aspect of modern diets and lifestyles is responsible for the link between dietary and blood cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases in developed nations. 

There exists some evidence and reasons to believe that high density, acellular starches and sugars – primarily whole and refined grains, flours and flour products (bread, pasta, pastries, etc.), and refined sugars are responsible for gut microbiome changes that favor inflammation and obesity [6], which in turn promotes high cholesterol, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.  These foods are absent from diets of traditional tribes which may have diets high in animal products and saturated fats but also have low cholesterol levels and high immunity to cardiovascular diseases.  In modern nations, heavy meat-eaters tend to also be heavy consumers of these refined carbohydrates, which may lead to the association of cholesterol-rich diets with high cholesterol. Fruits, roots, tubers and nuts are nutritionally superior to grains and legumes.

Although it may seem logical to avoid meat to lower cholesterol, randomized controlled trials indicate that people can lower cholesterol levels while eating lean meats, whether lean red meat, poultry, or fish [7]. So-called paleolithic diets consisting of lean fresh unprocessed meats (i.e. steak or roast, not bacon or other cured meats), fish, eggs, root vegetables, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and nuts but avoiding dairy and cereals have been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors and to be more satiating per calories than conventional cholesterol-lowering low-fat diets [7].

Whole plant foods contain so little cholesterol that for practical purposes it is negligible.  Further, some whole plant foods contain many components that increase the elimination of cholesterol, including fiber, phytosterols and phytonutrients. Hunter-gatherers and pastoralists who eat cholesterol-rich diets but have low blood cholesterol and high resistance to cardivovascular disease also eat whole plant foods (fruits, roots, nuts) or herbs that have cholesterol-reducing properties.

Research has also shown that stress will cause cholesterol levels to rise [8].  The effect of stress is much less than the effect of diet, but it is still significant.  If you want to reduce high cholesterol, it pays to reduce your stress as well as improve your diet.

High Cholesterol Effects

High total and LDL cholesterol are well-established risk factors for coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral vascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers.  It is also linked to erectile dysfunction and dementia. 

It has been established beyond doubt that people eating modern diets who have high cholesterol are at high risk for progressive atherosclerosis.  Very elevated blood cholesterol also causes lipid deposits in the skin (known as xanthomas).

Every cell and tissue in your body depends on a blood supply for healthy function.  The more fat and cholesterol you have in your blood, the thicker and stickier the blood is, and the harder is to move that blood around.  This contributes to high blood pressure. 

In addition, when the blood is congested with excess amounts of cholesterol and fats, the circulation is less efficient.  This means that cells and tissues don’t get enough oxygen and nutrients, and waste products build up in because blood flow to and away from the cells and tissues is impaired.  This can lead to aches and pains. 

A man can’t get an erection without a strong flow of blood into the genitals.  High blood fats impair the blood flow, and also cause atherosclerosis of the arteries supplying the genitals, which further reduces the blood flow. 

Of course the brain must have a constant supply of blood and oxygen.  High blood cholesterol reduces the supply of blood to the brain and this causes damage or death of brain cells resulting in dementia.  It also causes atherosclerosis of the arteries feeding the brain, which contributes to stroke risk.

How Low Should You Go?

Although physicians commonly suggest that a cholesterol under 200 mg/dL is “normal” and sufficient protection against cholesterol-related diseases, it has been well established that about half of all cardiovascular events occurs among people who have a cholesterol level between 150 and 200 mg/dL. 

In addition, people who due to genetics produce 28% less blood cholesterol than the average person have an 88% reduced risk of coronary heart disease [9].

You have the greatest possible protection from heart disease if your total cholesterol is less than 150 mg/dL and your LDL is less than 70 mg/dL. Cardiovascular disease is rare to non-existent in populations where the average serum cholesterol lies below 150 mg/dL and LDL lies below 70 mg/dL.  In fact, if your LDL is below 70 mg/dL, you will probably be removing plaque from your arteries and reversing atherosclerosis and heart disease [10].

The HDL Myth

Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that high HDL (so-called good cholesterol) does not provide protection against heart disease. People who have genetically elevated HDL have rates of heart disease similar to or greater than people who have lower HDL.[11, 12]

Conventional Drugs

Conventional medicine uses drugs, primarily statins, to reduce high cholesterol.  While these drugs are effective, they work by suppressing liver functions and so carry a risk of liver injury.  In addition the FDA states that statins may have other risks:

  • Cognitive (brain-related) impairment, such as memory loss, forgetfulness and confusion, has been reported by some statin users.
  • People being treated with statins may have an increased risk of raised blood sugar levels and the development of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Some medications interact with lovastatin (brand names include Mevacor) and can increase the risk of muscle damage.

Chinese Medicine For Blood Cholesterol

Chinese medicine addresses high cholesterol through acupuncture, herbal medicine, food therapy, and stress reduction meditations.

Acupuncture provides stress relief.  It is very important to get stress relief because when you are stressed you are more likely to make poor food choices and because the stress itself may cause the body to raise cholesterol levels.

In our clinic we also use prepared Chinese herbal medicines to drop high cholesterol.  The formulas we use include herbs that have been proven to lower total cholesterol and triglycerides. 

Food therapy may include eating fiber-rich foods that reduce cholesterol, such as beans, peas, lentils, almonds, barley, oats, hawthorn fruits, seaweeds, celery, and green tea, while limiting refined starches.

References

  1. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients).  National Academies Press, 2005: 542.
  2. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1985/press.html
  3. McMurry MP, Connor WE, Cerqueira MT. Dietary cholesterol and the plasma lipids and lipoproteins in the Tarahumara Indians: a people habituated to a low cholesterol diet after weaning. Am J Clin Nutr. 1982 Apr;35(4):741-4.
  4. Mattson FH, Erickson BA, Kligman AM. Effect of dietary cholesterol on serum cholesterol in man. Am J Clin Nutr1972; 25(6):589-594.
  5. Lindeberg S.  Food and western disease.  Health and nutrition from an evolutionary perspective. Wiley, 2010. Page 187.
  6. Spreadbury I. Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity. Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy. 2012;5:175-189. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S33473.
  7. Binnie MA et al. Red meats: Time for a paradigm shift in dietary advice. Meat Science 2014 Nov;98(3): 445-451. 
  8. Steptoe A, Brydon L. Associations Between Acute Lipid Stress Responses and Fasting Lipid Levels 3 Years Later. University College London; Health Psychology (2005);24(6): 601-7.
  9. Cohen JC, Boerwinkle E, Mosley TH, et al.  Sequence Variations in PCSK9, Low LDL, and Protection against Coronary Heart Disease.  NEJM 2006;354:1264-1272.
  10. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Cholesterol Education Program Expert Panel.  Adult Treatment Panel III.  NIH Publication No. 02-5215, September 2002. Page II-2.
  11. Agerholm-Larsen B, et al.  Elevated HDL Cholesterol is a Risk Factor for Ischemic Heart Disease in White Women When Caused by a Common Mutation in the Cholesteryl Ester Transfer Protein Gene.  Circulation 2000;101:1907-1912.
  12. http://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/news/20120516/raising-hdl-levels-may-not-lower-heart-attack-risk