Cholesterol has long been touted as a major bad guy in heart disease. That view has been slowly changing in the medical community, thanks to a number of studies and unanswered questions. First of all, if cholesterol is such a blood vessel blocker, why doesn’t it affect the veins in the body? Cholesterol travels in both arteries and veins so why don’t the binding components of it only really stick in arteries? This question puts forth another one – is cholesterol really the one behind the blockages of blood vessels that can cause heart disease and attacks?
Cholesterol’s role in the body is many. One of the things it does is use the lipoproteins as a type of bandaid to protect any tears or structural damage along the walls of the arteries. This action is the same thing cholesterol does for other body wounds as well often with life-saving results. It is the binding to the arterial walls that gives cholesterol a bad name in the world of heart disease.
There are two different cholesterols – high density lipoproteins (HDL or “good”cholesterol) and low density lipoproteins (LDL or “bad” cholesterol). The theory has been that the LDL cholesterol builds up in the arteries, restricting blood flow and proper oxygenation throughout the body, thus creating a malnourished environment for muscles (of which your heart is one). The thought was that by cutting out as much cholesterol from your diet as possible, you could lower the LDL levels and avoid a heart attack.
Casting blame elsewhere
Some recent theory breaking studies have taken place which shows that cholesterol may not really the bad guy after all in the world of heart disease. First of all, there is no real link between the cholesterol you derive from your food and the cholesterol levels found in the blood. In certain test groups, cholesterol levels rose and yet the heart attack incidences decreased. One of the largest health studies in China showed no real connection between the consumption of cholesterol and heart disease either.
In one ten year study, about 5,000 people with high cholesterol levels were given a top statin drug to help lower their cholesterol levels. Another 5,000 people with high cholesterol were told to follow a healthy diet along with appropriate exercise. The results were quite surprising. The statin drugs did indeed lower cholesterol but it did nothing to really lower the risk of heart attacks or heart disease and related deaths. In fact, taking the drug raised their risk of forming other ailments such as liver disease. The diet and exercise group also showed lower cholesterol levels and a modest improvement in heart health. However, they too were just as susceptible to heart disease and heart attacks.
Cholesterol studies in a number of countries also proved surprising. In a study of 20,000 people in Denmark with heart disease, the huge majority of them had normal cholesterol levels, meaning that cholesterol was not to blame for their disease. Thus far, there has been no definitive proof that cholesterol is indeed the bad boy in the heart disease world. That is not to say that cholesterol may not be a small contributing factor; the fact remains though that that are many other dietary changes that could take place to lower your risk of heart disease, mainly the reduction of saturated and trans fats.
Basically, the jury is still out on how bad cholesterol is. If you are told you have high or borderline high cholesterol levels but you otherwise feel fine, go ahead and get tested for heart disease. Chances are your arteries will look just fine, free and clear, in an angiogram and other tests that search for arterial blockages. To err on the side of caution however, revamp your diet and lower your cholesterol intake. Your body makes enough on its own without you adding more to it.