Cholesterol research is difficult, esoteric and accessible in journals that seldom make it beyond their target audience – other people doing the same type of work. One theory about the relationship of cholesterol and heart disease has dominated medical practice for over half a century, but there has always been dissension in the ranks of scientists, some of whom labor away in obscurity, slowly building a case that may one day topple the current dogma. I have attempted to make this subject accessible to a non-medical audience because the current paradigms for thinking about heart disease and treating it affect everyone who sees a doctor, listens to the news or reads the popular press – even children, because they eat what their parents believe is healthy for them.
Cholesterol phobia: is the end in sight?
Cholesterol earned a villain’s reputation because it got caught at many criminal scenes where victims succumbed to heart attacks. It was found lurking in the walls of arteries too narrowed by “plaques” to allow blood passage. Even in young healthy men, cholesterol- laden “fatty streaks” were surprise findings at autopsy after accidental or war-related death. Experimentally, fat choked arteries were easy to produce in experimental animals by feeding them food pellets saturated with fat – even olive oil worked. The laboratory work bolstered attempts to show that different populations consuming different amounts of fat had different rates of heart disease. Though both the laboratory and epidemiology studies were fraught with contradictory results, and the dietary cholesterol theory of heart disease was initially rejected by the American Heart Association, the personalities and scientific politics involved eventually catapulted the theory into the lives of all Americans, over 20 million of whom are now on potent drugs to combat the evil substance.
The dietary theory of heart disease
After more than half a century of war on cholesterol, the dietary theory remains just that – a theory – no matter how many commercials remind you that you need to lower your cholesterol. You may be surprised to hear that cholesterol could be absolved of its villainous status, within your lifetime. But don’t expect your doctor to agree, at least not yet. The cholesterol theory has a grip on our culture that is almost religious. The current dogma, advertised everywhere, is simple: there is good cholesterol, labeled HDL, and bad cholesterol, labeled LDL and anyone who cares a whit about his health will do whatever it takes to get those numbers in line with the current recommendations of the American Heart Association –eat a low fat diet, exercise, and take the right drugs.
Inconvenient facts have always dogged the theory. Cholesterol levels plummet in seizure patients treated with high fat, no carbohydrate diets. Heart attacks occur despite normal cholesterol levels. Low fat diets raise cholesterol levels -President Eisenhower was one of the most famous examples. And buried in the literature of the last half century are many clues pointing a blaming finger away from cholesterol and toward the complex lipoproteins that ferry it around the body. As more and more questions are raised about the efficacy and dangers of drugs that reduce cholesterol, more attention may turn to these lipoproteins. After all, like cholesterol, they have been part of the statistic most closely associated with heart disease – the LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
What are lipoproteins?
Total cholesterol measures cholesterol attached to lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are combinations of phospholipids (fats that dissolve in water) and specialized proteins that fit like keys into receptors on cells. Lipoproteins function like cargo ships, carrying fats to cells for fuel, to fat tissue for storage, and back to the liver for reprocessing when demanded. More or less cholesterol crowds aboard each boat depending on the number of boats available. The size of the fleet, in turn, depends on the amount of triglycerides (another type of fat), awaiting shipment – not on the amount of cholesterol.
Triglycerides and cholesterol are very different fats. Triglycerides provide the fatty acids that fuel most cells and are stored in fat tissue for later energy demands. Cholesterol yields no energy at all. It is a building block, used in the construction of all cell membranes and in the making of hormones and bile. Not all cholesterol comes from fat in the diet. The brain makes its own, and the liver and skin make whatever the body needs – raising production whenever dietary intake is low. Cholesterol and triglycerides attached to lipoproteins are like citizens of two different countries travelling together on one of the country’s boats. That country that builds the boats belongs to the triglycerides. The more triglycerides present in the body, the more lipoproteins in the fleet.
The varying density of lipoproteins
Lipoproteins fully loaded with cholesterol and triglycerides are fluffy and buoyant (fat floats) and called very low density lipoproteins, VLDL for short. They dock at cells in need of fuel or cholesterol, unload some cargo, lose some buoyancy, and become a little denser. Eventually they become low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and , with no energy or building material left to give up, they return to the liver for recycling. Another particle type called high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is even less buoyant – and less well understood. In contrast to cholesterol bound to LDL and VLDL, the cholesterol carried by HDL particles, like the cholesterol carried away from the intestines by chylomicrons (very large lipoproteins) does not contribute to the storage of fat in any tissues so is not associated with plaque formation in arteries. Normal to high levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with lower risk of heart disease.
What do the anti-cholesterol drugs do?
The widely prescribed statin drugs block the body’s ability to make cholesterol, which makes less cholesterol available to be loaded on to the lipoprotein boats. But boat making proceeds apace because it is driven by the amount of triglyceride awaiting transport- and the triglycerides, remember, come from dietary carbohydrates. Lowering cholesterol manufacture does not lower lipoprotein production – the lipoprotein boats will simply carry less cholesterol per lipoprotein particle, making each particle smaller and denser. Will this magically keep cholesterol out of artery walls? Not a good bet. Lipoprotein research labs have identified seven different particle types within the LDL fraction of total cholesterol. Heart risk appears to be correlated with the smallest and densest sub-fraction – the kind carrying the least amount of fat per molecule. (The anti-cholesterol drugs do have an independent anti-inflammatory effect which may be the way they diminish risk of a cardiac event in people with heart disease.)
So how does this complicated information change your life? Triglycerides, the stimulus for VLDL and LDL production, are a product of carbohydrate processing – especially of sugars and refined grains. Lowering VLDL production and hence LDL production requires lowering dietary carbohydrates – not fat, not cholesterol. Blood cholesterol isn’t even a good marker for total body cholesterol, which includes cholesterol squirreled away in artery walls. Cholesterol in arteries behaves much like cholesterol stored in fat tissue. It is responsive to the entire array of interconnected feedback loops involving not only fats, but carbohydrates and insulin and all the other hormones. It is time to respect its complexity and quit expecting that coaxing the body to make less cholesterol by taking drugs to block its production, or by eliminating it from the diet will end the scourge of heart disease.