By: Dr. Paul Garcia
In our last two posts we explained some need to know facts regarding high cholesterol levels. First, we established that cholesterol is a essential nutrient for your body and it’s not the cause heart disease. Next, we showed how the proteins that transport cholesterol through the blood, called lipoproteins, can morph- changing into small, dense and oxidized LDL particles. Finally, we found that it’s these smaller, denser and more oxidized LDL particles that are associated with heart disease, while the larger, fluffier and unoxidized LDL particles will cause you no harm. If you want to prevent heart disease, still the number one cause of death in the US, you need to understand what factors increase the number of these small, dense and oxidized LDL particles. In part three of this series we’ll reveal the triggers that can bring about these destructive changes.
As discussed in part 2, Oxidized LDL cholesterol particles have been shown to initiate the inflammatory, degenerative and immune changes that result in the development of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. So let’s see how these LDL particles become oxidized.
The outer surface of these cholesterol transporters are made up of lipid (another word for fat) containing phospholipids. It’s these fats in the LDL membrane that can become oxidized. There are two conditions that will promote oxidation of these fats, namely the amount of time they spend circulating in the blood and the type of the oil they are made with.
Lets start with the time factor. Cholesterol moves through your circulatory system attached to LDL particles. These lipoprotein complexes deliver cholesterol to all of the cells of your body. If a cell needs more cholesterol, it will communicate with the LDL particles and “invite” cholesterol from the blood into the cell where can be synthesized into important hormones, digestive aids, cell membranes, etc. This gets cholesterol out of the blood and into cells. This is important, because the longer these LDL particles circulate in the blood exposed to oxygen, the faster they become oxidized.
The gatekeepers that allow LDL cholesterol to move out of the bloodstream and into our cells are known as LDL receptors. These receptors are found on the surface of most cells and work much like a key opening a door. When cholesterol rich LDL particles come in contact with these receptors, a channel or doorway in the cell membrane opens, and cholesterol can move from the LDL particles into the cell to be used up. This process removes more than 75% of LDL particles from the circulation.
Now let’s see what happens if your LDL receptors aren’t working properly or if you have fewer receptors than you should.
The most serious condition affecting LDL receptors is known as familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). FH is a genetic disorder resulting in a specific gene mutation that causes defective LDL receptors. These unfortunate individuals are unable to effectively remove LDL cholesterol from circulation. As a result, they develop very high levels of oxidized LDL particles and show a dramatic increase in the rate of heart disease compared to the general population. In fact, of those with two abnormal copies of the LDLR gene, 80% have a heart attack by age 60.
Although this is a genetic condition that can’t be undone, we can learn something from this disease. If we can understand what other factors influence the number and sensitivity of these LDL receptors, we may be able to optimize the bodies use of cholesterol and limit the number of harmful LDL particles. There appear to be two other conditions that do just that.
Poor thyroid function (hypothyroidism) leads to a down regulation in the number of LDL receptors. Studies clearly show that suboptimal thyroid function results in fewer LDL receptors on the surface of our cells. Less LDL receptors translates into less LDL clearing and more oxidized LDL. Other studies have shown that LDL particle numbers will decrease after treatments improving thyroid function and other studies have shown that “correcting thyroid hormone deficiency nearly abolishes the risk of heart disease”.
Metabolic syndrome, characterized be both insulin and leptin resistance, will also decrease the number of LDL receptors. At least one third of adults in the US have metabolic syndrome and it’s the most common cause of increased risk of heart disease I see in my practice. Metabolic syndrome is a lifestyle disease that adversely affects blood sugar metabolism, weight, energy, reproduction and more. The good news is that with proper treatment, including diet, stress management, exercise, detoxification and supplementation, it can be prevented and reversed 100% of the time!
A second factor that can lead to more oxidized LDL particles is the type of lipids found in their outer surface. Many of the top clinicians and researchers believe that eating too many polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s), like vegetable and seed oils, can lead to unstable LDL particles that can more easily oxidize. Conversely, eating more saturated fatty acids (SFA’s), like butter and bacon, is thought to result in more stable and therefore less oxidizable LDL particles. Although there has’t yet been any conclusive studies to either prove or disprove this, I tend to agree.
This implies that eating butter and bacon is actually better for your heart than eating refined vegetable and seed oils like soybean or corn oil. How could this be? It goes against everything we’ve been told for the last 40+ years. It’s been hammered into our subconscious that saturated fats will kill you and vegetable oils are safer alternatives.
What most of us don’t realize is that SFA’s have been a staple of our ancestral diet for thousands of years, where as refined vegetable and seed oils are a relatively new addition. Native populations have thrived on diets high is SFA’s for as long as humans have been around. In fact, many indigenous tribes consume as much as 60-75% of their calories from SFA’s from meats, whale blubber, milk fats, blood and coconuts. If SFA’s are the cause of heart disease, like we’ve been told, we should expect to see high rates of heart disease in these cultures. The reality is that heart disease is almost nonexistent in these groups. However, when they adopt a more westernized or refined diet higher in PUFA’s, their rates of all disease -including heart disease- skyrocket!
Refined PUFA’s have only recently become a significant chunk of our caloric intake. They are found in nearly all processed, packaged and refined foods foods like salad dressing, chips and baked goods and are used as the primary cooking oil in most restaurants.
There are two additional conditions that will increase the number of LDL particles:
Recent evidence is showing a connection between infections and heart disease. There have been several studies showing that a chronic bacterial or viral infection will result in a significant increase in LDL particles. The proposed mechanism for this is very interesting. Cholesterol, specifically the LDL form, is known to have antimicrobial properties. Evidence shows that LDL particles aid our immune system and are able to bind to and inactivate pathogenic microorganisms. This means that if you are suffering from an infection, your body will raise it’s LDL levels in an attempt to help kill the bug. And if this infection persists, your LDL particle number will remain high for an extended time increasing it’s likelihood of becoming oxidized.
LDL particles have been shown to reduce the toxic properties of both internal and environmental toxins in our body. This is yet another beneficial property of cholesterol. Yet, because we are constantly being exposed to more and more toxins, LDL particles levels will rise in an attempt to protect us. Unfortunately, whether or not their intensions are for the best, high levels of LDL for an extended time run the risk of becoming oxidized.
I hope by now you’re beginning to have a deeper respect for “cholesterol”. The simple model of -high cholesterol leads to heart disease therefore we should attempt to lower cholesterol at all costs- benefits no one except the pharmaceutical companies. If you truly want to reduce your risk for heart disease, my suggestion would be to work with a healthcare practitioner that understands these concept and is skilled at treating them. If you want to get started right away, try these simple changes:
- Limit refined sugars
- Limit cereal grains (Wheat, Rye, Barley, Corn, Millet, Oats, Rice)
- Limit industrialized vegetable and seed oils (Safflower, Sunflower, Corn, Cottonseed, Peanut, Soybean and Canola)
- Include heathy saturated fats (Butter, Ghee, Coconut Oil, Lard)
- Limit exposure to toxins (Eat organic)
- Increase cold water fish intake (a good source of iodine for your thyroid)
- Move your body, rest your body and have fun everyday.
Now let’s hear from you. Post your comments and questions below and tell us what you think.