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If you struggle with high blood pressure, high belly fat or poor health you’ve likely been told by your doctor that you’re at risk of heart disease or stroke. Today, over one million Canadians are living with heart disease and every year over 300,000 are hospitalized1. You’ve also likely been told to reduce your high cholesterol levels – by reducing your intake of foods like eggs and meat – to protect you against heart disease. But, does the research really support the argument that high cholesterol causes heart disease?
Cholesterol is a fat made internally in humans and animals that is essential for the structure and functioning of your cells. Cholesterol is essential for the formation of all of your steroid hormones (i.e. testosterone), making vitamin D from sunlight and bile acids that help you breakdown and absorb dietary fats. If cholesterol is essential for so many functions in the body, how can it also be so dangerous to your health?
The truth is, high total cholesterol isn’t bad for your health, nor does it increase your risk of heart attack or stroke2.
In fact, world-renowned cardiologist and dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, states “In the general population, there is really no strong evidence for the cholesterol and heart disease link3.”
Your body produces the overwhelming majority of your total cholesterol (i.e. 75%) internally from its own cellular machinery. That means your diet only contributes about 25% to your total cholesterol levels. If you decide to eat more cholesterol-rich foods, your body decreases its own internal cholesterol production and vice-versa. For the majority of the population, the foods you eat have absolutely no impact on your total cholesterol levels2. For the remaining 25% of people, eating more cholesterol-containing animal fats will increase both your “good” HDL and your “bad” LDL levels, which doesn’t increase your risk of heart disease either2.
So, if your total cholesterol levels aren’t the root cause of heart disease, what is?
Being overweight, out of shape or eating a high carb diet are major factors that contribute to inflammation and the progression of heart disease because they increase your “bad” LDL and triglycerides levels, both well-recognized as significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease4.
First, start by changing your diet. Consuming too many carbs and simple sugars is a major cause of poor heart health. By reducing your intake of starchy carbs (i.e. cereals and breads at breakfast, sandwiches at lunch and pasta and breads for dinner) you can dramatically reduce your triglyceride levels and increase “good” HDL cholesterol5.
Next, add more movement into your daily routine. Regular physical activity also helps to boost your “good” HDL cholesterol and the more intensely you train the greater the impact on lowering triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol6,7. Try walking and cycling to work, going a few blocks further down the street to grab your lunch or coffee, add a day or two at the gym or take the stairs rather than the elevator at work. Whatever you can do to incorporate more movement into your day will protect your heart.
While diet and exercise are the building blocks for long-term health, if your “bad” LDL and triglycerides levels are very high, then you may need more support in the short-term.
Statin drugs are typically prescribed by doctors to lower LDL and total cholesterol, however they can have significant and harmful side-effects; chronic muscle pain, kidney damage, cognitive decline and dementia, blood sugar dysregulation and diabetes, and the list goes on and on9.
An alternative for lowering harmful LDL levels is to use supplemental red yeast rice extract. A recent study on 52 physicians and their spouses with high cholesterol levels found red yeast rice extract was able to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels by 22%10. Another study of 50 overweight individuals showed improvements in LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure11.
If you think red yeast rice extract might be a good fit for you, talk to your doctor or naturopath. Red yeast rice can interact with certain drugs (i.e. cholesterol-lowering medications and blood thinners) and deplete CoQ10 nutrient levels in the body (similarly to all statin drugs). Red yeast rice extract should not be taken for longer than 12 weeks without medical supervision.
Remember, eating too many eggs or high cholesterol foods is not likely increasing your risk of heart disease. To fight off cardiovascular disease and support a healthy heart get back to the fundamentals of diet and exercise, reduce your carb intake throughout the day, get more regular exercise. Talk to your doctor or naturopath about adding supplemental red-yeast rice extract, as well as healthy-heart supporting CoQ10, to reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels so you can thrive at work and at play.
Dr. Marc Bubbs is a board certified Naturopathic Doctor, Sports Nutrition Lead for the Canadian Men’s Basketball Team, and author of The Paleo Project.