Let’s face facts; Americans by and large are getting older. Since January 1, 2006, a baby boomer has turned 60 every seven seconds and this trend will continue for about the next 19 years. This simple fact has amazing and diverse implications for almost every facet of life in the United States and, for that matter, virtually all developed countries. (In China, for example, the number of people over age sixty is expected to reach 585 million by the year 2050.) Nowhere is this impact being felt more than in the area of health and wellness.
Americans in record numbers are showing increased concern for their health and longevity. For many, this means a sudden and almost complete reversal of years of living an unhealthy or even dangerous life-style. Products for smoking cessation, weight loss, osteoporosis treatment and prevention and erectile dysfunction saturate the airwaves and print media. In fact, prime time television commercials today are almost exclusively devoted to advertising products that address the anxieties of the over-60 demographic. This is especially true of products that reduce cholesterol and improve heart and circulatory function.
Heart disease, mostly in the form of atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries, is the number one cause of premature death in the United States, and cholesterol is believed by most experts to be one of the major causes of the condition known as atherosclerosis. It is little wonder, then, that medications, dietary supplements, and numerous foods aimed at reducing cholesterol are the focus of so much media attention these days, or that these products are literally flying off the shelves of grocery and health food stores, pharmacies and on-line merchants.
What is somewhat amazing is, however, is that, in their zeal to improve their chances at a long and healthy life, so many people have neglected to determine which of these products is most beneficial and which, if any, pose substantial risks. So, in the interest of enlightening a strangely naive, albeit somewhat terrified public, we have put together a basic review of ways to decrease cholesterol and improve your heart health. This is in no way a complete review of the research, nor is it meant to be a substitute for medical advice.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is essential to human biology. It is a component of all cell membranes, where it allows for the transportation of vital compounds from the blood and lymphatic system into the cells. It is also necessary for the manufacture of bile, steroid hormones by the adrenal glands and the sex hormones progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. Cholesterol is also essential to Vitamin D synthesis.
Cholesterol is produced by the liver and excreted into the intestines in the form of bile; about 50% of this cholesterol is later reabsorbed into the blood stream and returned through the blood to the liver. The liver also regulates the amount of circulating cholesterol by decreasing cholesterol production in response to an elevation in serum cholesterol due to the intake of a diet high in fat.
Sources of cholesterol
In addition to the cholesterol manufactured by the liver, the major source of cholesterol in the bloodstream is dietary cholesterol. However, the amount of circulating cholesterol seems to be more closely related to the total intake of dietary fat than to the intake of cholesterol itself. In particular, diets high in animal fats seem to increase total cholesterol in humans.
Major dietary sources of cholesterol include beef, pork, poultry, shrimp, egg yolks, milk and cheese. Polyunsaturated fats, also known as “Trans fats,” which are found most often in margarine and solid fats like “Crisco” and lard, also greatly increase serum cholesterol. The United States recently banned Trans fats from all food sold in markets and restaurants.
The amount of cholesterol in plant based food sources is very small. What’s more, certain plants contain cholesterol-like compounds called phytosterols which are believed to lower serum cholesterol. Phytosterols can be found in flax seeds, flax seed oil and peanuts.
Types of cholesterol
Although cholesterol occurs in a number of forms, there are twomajor types of cholesterol found in the human body. These are commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol. (Although some research indicates that the distinction is not that clear cut.)
The direct measurement of cholesterol is not possible because cholesterol itself is not is not soluble in blood; rather it is carried through the bloodstream on compounds called “lipoproteins.” Thus, the blood test for good cholesterol, known as “HDL,” actually measures a substance called “high density lipoprotein.” It is referred to as “good” cholesterol because HDL is capable of removing cholesterol molecules from the circulating blood. Similarly, bad cholesterol, or “LDL” is measured as “low density lipoprotein.”
These are the particles that are believed to be responsible for the development of atherosclerosis. According to the latest research, it is the ratio of these two substances that is the best predictor for heart disease. Higher concentrations of LDL and lower concentrations of HDL are strongly associated with atherosclerosis and an increased risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke and peripheral vascular disease.
Because of the potentially devastating effects on the health of people all over the globe, a great deal of research aimed at finding ways in which to decrease cholesterol, particularly in those at greatest risk for a cardiovascular event is currently underway. Unfortunately, some of the most important factors in an individual’s total cholesterol are genetically determined. However, diet, exercise, dietary supplements and medications called “statins” are all somewhat effective in reducing total cholesterol and/or changing the ratio of good and bad cholesterol in some individuals.
A generally healthy diet-one low in animal fat and high in fiber, whole grains and food sources that are known to lower cholesterol and promote cardiovascular health is the first line of defense against abnormal cholesterol levels and atherosclerosis. Both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber may lower cholesterol by altering the amount of fat absorbed by the intestines. Some high-fiber foods include:
- legumes such as peas
- oats and oat bran
- plums and prunes, berries, bananas and apples,
- broccoli, carrots, and artichokes (soluble fiber)
- green beans, zucchini, celery, and cauliflower(insoluble fiber)
- root tubers and root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, psyllium and onions
- whole grain foods
- wheat and corn bran
- nuts and seeds, especially flax seed
Another important means of lowering cholesterol is through the use of dietary supplements that contain substances to prevent the absorption of fats in the intestines and/or the aforementioned phytosterols. Phytosterols, you may recall, are plant compounds that bind to cholesterol in the blood stream and carry it to the liver, where it is excreted in bile and other compounds.
One of these supplements, “Vasacor” is a combination of natural ingredients that help your body naturally decrease the levels of LDL, while also promoting an increase in your HDL levels. This two-part approach to cholesterol management allows you achieve better results than diet and exercise alone.
Finally, recent advances in the treatment of high cholesterol include adding medications known as “statins” to a regimen of natural cholesterol reduction therapies. “Statins,” which are scientifically termed “HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors,”also positively affect the balance of HDL and LDL and can increase the efficacy of a program of diet, exercise and nutritional supplements, thereby further lowering the risk of cardiac complications.
Unfortunately, as is the case with most pharmaceutical compounds, statins are not without some risk of significant side effects and toxicities. The most serious of these is the breakdown of muscle tissue in the body. If extensive, this can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue and even kidney failure due to excess strain on the kidneys caused by the excretion of the by-products muscle cell breakdown.
Hopefully, this review of cholesterol and cholesterol reduction therapy will prove helpful to those of you who are trying to develop a healthier life-style-preferably before you develop high cholesterol or heart disease. Although our country’s demographic is shifting to an older population, you are never too young to make yourself aware of the dangers of high cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
Beginning a lower-fat diet, high in fiber and plant sterols, starting a moderate exercise regimen and adding a natural dietary supplement such as Vasacor to your routine is a positive step towards better health for anyone at any age.