We frequently hear about the dangers of high cholesterol, but keeping cholesterol as low as many doctors recommend may be doing your body more harm than good.

Although conventional medicine has demonized cholesterol and many healthy foods as a consequence, too little cholesterol can be harmful in a variety of ways. Your body uses cholesterol to make cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D, bile acids (to help you digest fats), and it’s vital to good brain function.

Cholesterol is vital to good brain function

Cholesterol is abundant in brain and nervous tissue. It provides insulation around nerve cells that transmit electrical impulses, thus maintaining healthy communication in the brain. It also supports the activity of neurotransmitters, chemicals used for communication that greatly affect our mood, personality, and cognitive function. In fact, sufficient cholesterol is necessary to prevent depression and cholesterol-lowering medications have been linked with loss of memory and cognition.

The majority of your brain is made up of fat and the fats you eat help determine the chemical structure of your brain. Many of the foods people are told to avoid in order to lower cholesterol—eggs, fatty meats and fish, butter—also contain choline, a precursor to a brain chemical called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is necessary for learning, memory, concentration, and focus. It’s important to eat healthy, natural fats and avoid processed vegetable oils. You also want to strictly avoid trans fats, or hydrogenated oils, which have been shown to damage the brain and raise your risk for heart disease.

Cholesterol needed for healthy hormones

Cholesterol is a primary building block for the reproductive hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and adrenal hormones. When cholesterol is too low, hormone deficiencies may result. Sufficient cholesterol is also necessary to digest vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are found in fats and are important antioxidants.

Although cholesterol scares are over inflated, it is nevertheless important to pay attention to other lipid panel markers, such as the ratio of HDL to LDL, triglyceride levels, and small, dense LDL. It is important to note too that some people have a genetic tendency toward extremely high cholesterol. In those situations medical attention beyond diet may be necessary.

Inflammation is the real culprit in heart disease

Researchers are increasingly finding chronic inflammation, not healthy dietary fats, damages the walls of the arteries and raises the risk of heart disease. Cholesterol’s job is to repair this damage by creating patches, or plaques—it is more the Band-Aid for arterial damage than the cause.

High blood sugar and insulin increase inflammation and heart disease risk

High blood sugar and insulin levels are a primary cause of chronic inflammation. Sweet and starchy foods such as desserts, pastries, cereal, white rice, sodas and sweet drinks, and any other foods that spike the blood sugar and subsequently insulin are the real threat to the arterial walls.

When it comes to looking at your risk of heart disease on a blood test, inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein in the blood that rises in response to inflammation, are important to check. High triglycerides and abnormal blood sugar levels are other markers that can reflect whether your diet may be promoting inflammation.

To learn more about healthy cholesterol and a genuine heart-healthy diet, contact my office.