Don't Worry About Cholesterol!
I’m going to tell you a secret—something that the smartest, most cutting-edge health professionals already know and talk about amongst themselves. This information isn’t widely known or accepted yet, but it will be, at which point we will all shake our heads, look back, and say, “What were we thinking?”
Get ready to be shocked.
High cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease.
Before you think I’ve taken leave of my senses, consider this: Half of people with heart disease have “normal” cholesterol and half of people with elevated cholesterol are completely healthy.
The famous Lyon Heart Study found that certain dietary and lifestyle changes reduced deaths by 70 percent and reduced cardiovascular deaths by an even more impressive 76 percent, all without making as much as a dent in cholesterol levels. The Nurses Health Study found that 82 percent of coronary events could probably have been prevented were people to adhere to five lifestyle prescriptions, none of which had anything to do with lowering cholesterol. And that’s just the bare tip of an ever-growing iceberg of research.
Yet, talk to people about living longer and living free from heart disease (or any of the other conditions that rob us of life and vitality), and you’ll invariably hear someone say, “I must do something to lower my cholesterol.”
Why do we continue to worry about cholesterol when it has practically nothing to do with living a long and healthy life?
For one thing, cholesterol is easy to measure. Lowering it is also an extraordinarily profitable business. Zocor and Lipitor, two cholesterol-lowering drugs, remain in the top ten of every Forbes list of best-selling drugs, and bring in over 30 billion a year for their makers.
Thirdly, the idea that high cholesterol causes heart disease is so embedded in our national consciousness that to dislodge it, even with the considerable amount of emerging scientific evidence that the cholesterol hypothesis is simply wrong, would be a massive undertaking. Heck, we’re still buying “low-fat” cookies and margarine based on information that’s been out of date for ten years.
So, if not cholesterol, what should we be paying attention to if we want to live longer and healthier lives?
I’ve identified four major factors that age the body and rob us of vitality. They are so insidious and systemic that I’ve named them “The Four Horsemen of Aging.” These “four horsemen” will kill you. Cholesterol won’t. They are:
Inflammation: The Silent Killer
Inflammation is a silent killer and a contributor to every major degenerative disease from Alzheimer’s to diabetes, heart disease to cancer. It comes in two flavors—chronic and acute. We are all familiar with acute inflammation; it’s what you feel when you stub your toe, get a toothache, pull a muscle, or have an allergy attack.
But chronic inflammation is the killer, and it flies beneath the radar. It’s your body’s response to small but continuous insults such as exposure to toxins; bad diet; stress; or cigarettes, and it causes damage to your vascular system. In fact, the body uses cholesterol to try to patch up that damage—so blaming cholesterol for the damage is like blaming a St. Bernard for an avalanche!
We can do a great deal to fight inflammation by eating anti-inflammatory foods (fruits and vegetables abound with natural anti-inflammatories like quercetin and other flavonoids) and by taking anti-inflammatory supplements such as omega-3s and curcumin.
The Unholy Three: Oxidation, Sugar, and Stress
Oxidation is another process that ages us. Oxidation is what you see when apple slices are left out and then turn brown. That happens inside our bodies every day—the result of rogue molecules (free radicals) that attack our cells and DNA. Diets high in antioxidants go a long way towards fixing this damage.
Sugar, a risk factor for almost everything you don’t want to have, causes something called glycation. Glycation happens when excess sugar in the bloodstream “gums up the works.” Sugar gloms onto protein in the blood, and makes it too sticky to pass through small capillaries. This is one reason why diabetics often have amputations in extremities like toes and feet, and problems in areas like the eyes and kidneys, which are served by small, narrow blood vessels. High blood sugar is far more damaging to the body than cholesterol.
Finally, stress is one of the biggest killers on the planet, and, like sugar, far more of a danger to us than cholesterol ever was. Stress hormones age (and shrink) an important area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in short-term memory. Stress hormones also trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals in the body called cytokines, which makes stress a double threat when it comes to heart disease.
Stress can exacerbate nearly any disease, not to mention that it can slow, or even prevent, recovery. And stress can actually foster weight gain—the major stress hormone, cortisol, causes the body to retain weight around the middle.
What We Can Learn From the Blue Zones
The “Blue Zones” are areas around the globe where people routinely live to 100 in extraordinary health with all their faculties intact. No one worries about his or her cholesterol or saturated fat intake. They simply don’t have to.
They have built-in stress reducers such as supportive, extended families and interactive community events. They eat natural, whole-food diets filled with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. And, their sugar intake is naturally low, so they don’t have to worry about it gumming up their insides and destroying their health.
Aging may be inevitable, but unhealthy aging is not. Neither is heart disease. If you know what to do, you can truly have an extraordinary life well into your 9th and 10th decade, filled with joy and purpose.
Some simple changes in diet and lifestyle can make a far bigger difference in reducing your risk for heart disease than lowering cholesterol ever did. And none of those changes have a single side effect—unless you count increased health, energy, and vitality “side effects.”
Best of all, the changes aren’t that hard to make. The payoff is worth it—just ask the people in the Blue Zones.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, is a board-certified nutritionist who is part owner of Rockwell Nutrition. Jonny is also the author of nine books, including bestsellers Living Low Carb and The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. His latest book, The Great Cholesterol Myth will be published by FairWinds Press in November. Visit him at jonnybowden.com and follow him on Twitter @jonnybowden.