10 Reasons Cholesterol Is Necessary for Health

Cholesterol moleculeCholesterol does not cause heart disease, strokes, or atherosclerosis!  Sound radical?  More and more scientists, physicians, and researchers are admitting that the long time vilification of cholesterol is based on inadequate studies and misinterpreted results.  In fact, our bodies need cholesterol!  Having plenty of cholesterol is very protective to our health. Wikipedia says that cholesterol is “an alcohol, . .  an organic molecule. It is a sterol (or modified steroid), It is an essential structural component of animal cell membranes that is required to establish proper membrane permeability and fluidity.”  It is required by our bodies!  Dr. Mary Enig calls cholesterol “perhaps the most misunderstood and wrongly maligned biological molecule in existence.” [2]

I’ve been reading Put Your Heart in Your Mouth, by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride and was impressed with her discussion of the many reasons cholesterol is necessary for our health.  It is not the villain as portrayed for the last several decades. So why do we need cholesterol, and how do we use it?  Here are 10 reasons our bodies need cholesterol:

1. Cholesterol is essential to the body’s cells

Saturated fats and cholesterol are an essential part of almost all cells in our bodies.  They keep the cell walls firm rather than flabby and fluid. [1]  “They provide flexible structure to the membrane.”  “Cholesterol helps a membrane keep its proper share.” [2]  For example, cells in blood vessels need to be both flexible and strong to withstand the pressure of flowing blood.  As you might expect, cells that must remain fluid do not contain as much cholesterol. Cell membranes can be made of up to 40% cholesterol. [2]

2. Cholesterol is necessary for internal communication

Cholesterol keeps proteins embedded in the lipid bilayer of our cell walls. These proteins form channels that selectively allow substances, such as glucose or vitamins, to diffuse through the cell membrane as needed.  Maintaining the position of these proteins in the cell walls is necessary for the body to regulate its processes. [3]

3. Cholesterol is used by the brain and nervous system

About 25% of all of the body’s cholesterol is used by the brain, even though the brain is only about 2% of the body’s weight. [7]  Every cell and structure in our brain and nervous system needs cholesterol.  Large amounts of cholesterol are particularly important for the developing brain and eyes of a fetus and newborn infant.  Breast milk is high in cholesterol and contains an enzyme that allows the baby to utilize almost all of it. [2]  Formula usually doesn’t contain much, if any, cholesterol.  The fatty substance myelin in our brain and nervous system is 20% cholesterol.  Myelin coats every nerve cell in the body, protecting and insulating.  Loss of myelin can lead to multiple sclerosis. [1]

4. Cholesterol is necessary for memory

Our memory is heavily dependent on synapse formation in the brain.  “Scientists have discovered that synapse formation is almost entirely dependent on cholesterol. . . without the presence of this factor we cannot form synapses, and hence we would not be able to learn or remember anything.  Memory loss is one of the side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs.” [1]  Dr. Duane Graveline, MD, former NASA astronaut, has written extensively about his memory loss while taking statins.  He reversed his memory loss by stopping the drugs and eating cholesterol-rich foods. [9]

5. Endocrine hormones need cholesterol

After the brain, the endocrine glands–adrenals and sex glands–need cholesterol the most.  The hormones produced by these glands perform many necessary body functions, from regulating metabolism to behavior and reproduction.  The stresses of modern life can be reduced by eating cholesterol-rich foods.  As people have eaten less and less animal fats, problems with fertility and reproduction have risen.  Several studies have shown that eating foods like full-fat dairy and cream can improve fertility. [1]

6. The liver needs cholesterol to produce bile

The liver produces cholesterol and regulates the cholesterol level in our blood.  The liver also makes bile out of the cholesterol.  As a measure of how important cholesterol is to the body, the liver actually recycles 95% of the bile in the body.  Cholesterol is “too precious for the body to waste.”  Bile is essential to digesting and absorbing fats and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K.  In fact, “cholesterol is the major building block of one of these vitamins–vitamin D.  Vitamin D is made from the cholesterol in our skin, when it is exposed to sunlight.”  The other major sources of vitamin D are cholesterol-rich foods such as cod liver oil, fish, shellfish, butter, lard, and egg yolks.  People who avoid both sun and dietary cholesterol are at great risk of vitamin D deficiency. [1]

7. The immune system needs cholesterol to fight infection

Immune cells rely on cholesterol to fight infections and repair themselves.  There is evidence that cholesterol helps T-cells to eliminate cancer cells. [5]  MRSA, a common hospital infection that “can literally dissolve red blood cells, . . . does not work in the presence of LDL cholesterol.  People who fall prey to this toxin have low blood cholesterol.”  People with high levels of cholesterol are “four times less likely to contract AIDS, they rarely get common colds, and they recover from infections more quickly than people with “normal” or low cholesterol.” That may be one reason that cod liver oil–high in cholesterol–is known as a treatment for illness. [2]

8. Cholesterol is a healing agent

Cholesterol is used as a raw material in the healing process.  Damaged cells need cholesterol and fats to repair and heal because their structure is made of those substances.  Surgery and dental work often result in high levels of cholesterol in the blood because the liver produces it to heal the damage. [2]

9. Both LDL and HDL are essential

There isn’t a “good” or a “bad” cholesterol.  Both LDL and HDL perform essential functions for the body.  When there is tissue damage, the liver responds by sending LDL cholesterol to the injury site to fight the bacteria or virus, which explains the high presence of LDL in the tissue. When the wound is healed, it returns to the liver as HDL for reuse.  “Because this cholesterol travels from the liver to the wound in the form of HDL, our ‘science’, in its wisdom, called LDL a ‘bad’ cholesterol.”  I like Dr. Campbell-McBride’s analogy comparing “good” and “bad” cholesterol to calling an ambulance on the way to a patient a “bad” ambulance, but the ambulance becomes “good” when carrying the patient to a hospital. [1]

10.  Cholesterol is a marker

We need the micronutrients associated with cholesterol in the foods that contain them. And we need those micronutrients to be eaten along with cholesterol in order for them to be properly digested. [7]

Those are 10 of the reasons cholesterol is necessary for our bodies.  The body manufactures about 75% of the cholesterol it needs out of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats; therefore, eating cholesterol-rich foods doesn’t usually have a significant effect on total cholesterol levels.  The body is wonderfully efficient and works very hard to maintain a sufficient level of cholesterol for our bodies to function properly.  While restricting dietary cholesterol may not have much effect on the body’s cholesterol levels, cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as statins, can cause significant harm.  These drugs “interfere with the body’s ability to produce cholesterol and hence they do reduce the amount of cholesterol available for the body to use.”  [1] [emphasis added]   Too little cholesterol is harmful to the body’s ability to repair, heal, and regulate necessary functions; however, most people don’t need to worry about low blood levels of cholesterol unless they take a cholesterol-lowering drug.

Sources:

[1] Put Your Heart in Your Mouth, Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD
[2] Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol
, Mary G. Enig, PhD
[3] Life Without Bread: How a Low-Carbohydrate Diet Can Save Your Life, Christian B. Allan, PhD, and Wolfgang Lutz, MD
[4] How the Body Uses Cholesterol, Discovery Health
[5] High cholesterol may protect against infections and atherosclerosis, Oxford Journals
[6] Cholesterol: The Enemy Number One!, Views and Previews
[7] Why Should You Maintain Optimal Cholesterol?, Dr. Mercola
[8] Fat and Cholesterol are Good for You, Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD
[9] Spacedoc.com, Duane Graveline, MD, MPH [website of former NASA astronaut and scientist]

If you liked what you read, you might also be interested in these Real Food Houston posts:

Warning! Women in danger of being overprescribed statins!
Study Shows Low Cholesterol in Women Is Associated With Higher Death Rate
Why eating fat doesn’t make you fat!
Why would anyone bother to eat just the white of an egg?

Photo credit: Cholesterol molecule

This post is shared on Sunday School Blog Carnival and Fat Tuesday.

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One Response to 10 Reasons Cholesterol Is Necessary for Health

  1. Pingback: Crisco – how marketing trumped nutrition! | Real Food Houston

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