06 July 2011 ~ 10 Comments

Dietary Cholesterol: Unsung Endocrine and Immune Hero?, by Liz Schau

Cholesterol: most of us have a love-hate relationship with this fatty, waxy substance that’s found in animal foods and products. On the one hand, we can’t get enough of it (imagine that ooey-gooey cheeseburger of your dreams, or ice cream sundae with extra whipped cream); we are constantly craving more. On the other hand, we are continuously cautioned by mainstream dieticians to avoid the stuff at all costs in order to keep our blood cholesterol levels low and in healthy range. The idea goes that, by eating cholesterol in your food too much or too often, you’ll get high cholesterol in your body which can cause all sorts of health problems (“The Lipid Hypothesis” as it’s called). The only problem with this theory is that cholesterol is an essential nutrient and, without it, we can’t survive … or at least, we certainly cannot thrive.

For starters, the brain and nervous system are actually made of cholesterol. According to the Weston A Price Foundation, “The human brain is particularly rich in cholesterol: around 25 percent of all body cholesterol is accounted for by the brain. Every cell and every structure in the brain and the rest of our nervous system needs cholesterol, not only to build itself but also to accomplish its many functions … The more healthy synapses a person’s brain can make, the more mentally able and intelligent that person is. Scientists have discovered that synapse formation is almost entirely dependent on cholesterol, which is produced by the brain cells in a form called apolipoprotein E. 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.”

Without proper servings of cholesterol on our plates, we have low mental acuity, may feel depressed or anxious, have brain fog and an inability to concentrate. Cholesterol, in other words, is brain food. For those with thyroid disease, the other good news is that cholesterol is also thyroid food. That’s right – cholesterol is not only anti-inflammatory, but it is the substance from which our hormones are created. The Weston A Price Foundation says, “After the brain, the organs hungriest for cholesterol are our endocrine glands … [Their] hormones accomplish a myriad of functions in the body, from regulation of our metabolism, energy production, mineral assimilation, brain, muscle and bone formation to behavior, emotions and reproduction. In our stressful modern lives we consume a lot of these hormones, leading to a condition called ‘adrenal exhaustion.’ …the most important therapeutic measure is to provide your [glands] with plenty of dietary cholesterol.”

When it comes to the immune system, cholesterol is healing against pathogens (key in autoimmunity and artificial self-attack): “It has been recorded that people with high levels of cholesterol are protected from infections; they rarely get common colds and they recover from infections more quickly than people with ‘normal’ or low blood cholesterol. People with low blood cholesterol are prone to various infections, suffer from them longer and are more likely to die from an infection. A diet rich in cholesterol has been demonstrated to improve these people’s ability to recover from infections. So, any person suffering from an acute or chronic infection needs to eat high-cholesterol foods to recover … the body cannot clear the infection, remove toxic elements or heal the wound without cholesterol and fats. … When we have an infection: LDL-cholesterol goes up to deal with the bacterial or viral attack.”

Autoimmune hypothyroidism (the most common form of thyroid disease in Western peoples) is the condition in which the body’s self-attacking immune system is limiting the amount of hormone being produced by the thyroid gland. (There are other reasons for hypothyroidism, but let’s stick with this most basic and catch-all explanation). One way to boost the amount of thyroid hormone the body creates and ease underlying infection? Eat more cholesterol.
Before you let the thought of savoring cholesterol-rich foods for your good health scare you, consider this: there are differences in healthy cholesterol sources versus unhealthy. Sources of cholesterol from pure, organic, grass-fed, or wild-caught animals are the healthy and acceptable variety. Think wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef, pastured chickens who graze on insects all day (chickens are not vegetarians, contrary to what grocery stores offer up). Whereas, on the other hand, cholesterol from Burger King certainly won’t benefit the brain and body (contaminated and accompanied by too many carbohydrates).

Indeed, the trick to eating cholesterol as a therapeutic tool for better thyroid health and to reduce inflammation/infection is this: do not eat cholesterol while also eating grains and starches. It is the impact of starches and sugars that raise blood cholesterol levels. So, when eating cholesterol on purpose, eat low-carb non-starchy veggies, moderate amounts of fruits, protein, nuts and seeds, and spices. Sugar and starch are at the root of inflammation and high blood cholesterol, and when paired with dietary cholesterol, the pair can raise LDL levels.

So next time you have the chance to order the steak and eggs with salad, over the bread and pasta dish, consider which your thyroid and immune system most likely have a taste for.
Source: Weston A Price Foundation

 

Liz Schau is a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Counselor and Health Writer who works with women with Hashimoto’s Thyroid Disease, using natural health and dietary changes to help them gain more wellness. You can find her at LizSchau.com.
Note: Though dietary changes are generally healthy and safe, be sure to work with a health care professional of your choosing, taking your current and past health and lifestyle into consideration before deciding which nutritional protocol is best for your specific situation. As always, do your own research and utilize the principle of uniqueness.

10 Responses to “Dietary Cholesterol: Unsung Endocrine and Immune Hero?, by Liz Schau”

  1. Susan B. Reinhard 6 July 2011 at 12:30 am Permalink

    They claim that cholesterol must be lowered for MS, to the point of ordering statins, which I can’t take due to leg pain. And diets that completely eliminate Leptin can cause MS. More study should be done but of course it isn’t.

    • Sarah Downing 6 July 2011 at 12:35 am Permalink

      Hey Susan,

      Thanks for your comment. Cholesterol is kind of complicated because – as Liz mentions – there are good and bad forms of it and we need enough good cholesterol to make hormones as it is a hormone precursor. Statins are tricky too because I know they can have nasty side effects. Leptin resistance seems to be another common problem with thyroid patients, causing some of them to have weight problems. I’m interested in how you would eliminate leptin as I thought that it was a hormone that the body naturally produces. Then again, I guess there are special leptin diets – I just have to admit I don’t know that much about it, but Liz might. As thyroid patients, we are constantly being ragged on for having high cholesterol (not everyone has this issue, but many patients do), but at the end of the day doctors shouldn’t forget that some good cholesterol is – as Liz mentioned – absolutely essential. It’s without a doubt a fascinating and very complex topic.

      Love,

      Sarah

  2. Lori 6 July 2011 at 4:08 am Permalink

    Great article Liz. I love the way you explain things. I feel the total cholesterol number is pretty meaningless. It’s the HDL (good) and LDL (bad) that we need to know and adjust if needed with thyroid treatment and diet, then the total cholesterol number should come down too. My LDL was high before diagnosis of Hashimoto’s but once that was treated, it came down nicely. I’m very sensitive to sugar and starches (carbs). If I eat them, it’s like taking a tranquilizer, I pass out and wake up with headache and my brain feeling like it’s being stuck with pins and needles, and in a nasty, grouchy mood. Pretty powerful stuff!

    • Sarah Downing 6 July 2011 at 4:18 am Permalink

      Thanks for commenting, Lori. I totally agree with you about the total cholesterol number being misleading. My personal trainer (who is unsurprisingly very healthy) told me her total cholesterol is actually higher than it should be, but that is because her good cholesterol (HDL) is so good. I never had elevated cholesterol, but my triglycerides were elevated on diagnosis. Now that I’m getting the treatment I need, both my cholesterol and my triglycerides are excellent (and possibly better than some people who don’t have thyroid disease). I’ll be interested to see whether going gluten-, dairy- and egg-free improves my levels further.

      Love,

      Sarah

    • I’m so with you Lori — catatonic after carbs 🙂

      • Sarah Downing 6 July 2011 at 7:06 pm Permalink

        I have always found myself naturally avoiding big portions of carbs because I find they make me feel really weighed down, especially pasta, although the homemade pasta from our local Italian (where the guy is actually Italian) is wonderful. It tastes like the pasta you get in Italy and comes in very manageable portions. Sadly, however, I won’t be having anymore of that now I’m gluten-free, but thankfully their new chef is very au fait with that.

        Cheers,

        Sarah

  3. Bernadette 6 July 2011 at 10:09 am Permalink

    Great article Liz!! Knowledge is power and modern medicine often times has it backwards!

    My cholesterol levels were higher before I started healing my gut and calming the inflammation. As soon as I started treatment the numbers went right down. Had to be due to my diet changes. 🙂 Of course I don’t want it too low either, so I am always sure to get plenty of good fats. Glad you added the Weston A. Price Foundation in here as a resource….wonderful info there.

    Something I watched that opened my eyes to the cholesterol myths:

    http://thehealthyskeptic.org/i-have-high-cholesterol-and-i-dont-care

    • Sarah Downing 6 July 2011 at 10:45 am Permalink

      Well said, Bernadette! It is certainly interesting that your diet change affected your cholesterol, although I guess it’s not that surprising. My cholesterol is already where it needs to be, but it’ll be interesting to see if it changes too as a result of my diet change. I am a big of fan of olive oil and Mediterranean cooking. We also enjoy barbecuing lean fish and meats! Yum!

      Thanks for the interesting link. I really like some of the articles by the Healthy Skeptic. I’ll take a look at that one later.

      Love,

      Sarah

    • Thanks so much, Bernadette! I am a big fan of The Healthy Skeptic too. 🙂 It’s all about healing the gut, isn’t it? That’s where I had my success too.


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