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Addressing the Root Causes of High Cholesterol

Sunday, June 26th 2022 10:00am 7 min read
Dr. Jessica Peatross dr.jess.md @drjessmd

Hospitalist & top functional MD who gets to the root cause. Stealth infection & environmental toxicity keynote speaker.

Cholesterol has a bad reputation. The media is replete with advertisements for drugs that lower it, and the internet assails us continuously with misinformation about cholesterol and how to lower it.

It is true that high cholesterol can result in serious health problems. However, not all cholesterol is bad. We hold many misconceptions about the source of high cholesterol in the body. Conventional medicine acts reactively after cholesterol levels become problematic. However, it’s crucial to examine what elevates cholesterol levels to unhealthy levels in the first place, and inflammation is among those causes.

In addition, functional medicine looks at the factors behind the inflammatory responses. The objective is to pinpoint the source or sources behind the high cholesterol aside from genetics or lifestyle factors. As you become educated on the topic, you will naturally begin making better choices regarding cholesterol levels and overall well-being.

The importance of cholesterol in the human body

Some types of cholesterol are essential for good health. Your body needs cholesterol to perform key functions like making hormones and building cells. Sterols are a type of fat your body needs for proper functioning. If your body cannot get the necessary cholesterol from food, the liver manufactures it.

Cholesterol performs several functions in the body, such as:

  • Building cells
  • Forming and maintaining cell membranes and structures
  • Insulating nerve cells
  • Making critical hormones
  • Making estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone
  • Making vitamin D

Common causes of high cholesterol

There are some common misconceptions about cholesterol, such as how cholesterol rises to unhealthy levels. Even though cholesterol is necessary for the body to perform key health functions, very high cholesterol levels can be dangerous, even life-threatening. Unfortunately, if you have high cholesterol, you may not know it because it doesn’t produce symptoms. You will need to have your cholesterol levels checked regularly to prevent serious health problems.

Several factors play into unhealthy cholesterol levels such as diabetes, eating foods high in saturated fats, heart disease, high blood pressure, poor genetics, and smoking. Diet and genetics sometimes play a role in cholesterol levels, but not always. Many times, there are more underlying health problems contributing to the issues.

Cholesterol and inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s immune response to an illness or injury, and an essential part of facilitating healing. However, if an immune response becomes dysfunctional, it can result in a cascade of health problems. For short-term conditions, inflammation is helpful, but sustained low levels of inflammation irritate the blood vessels. Inflammation may promote the growth of plaque, loosen plaque in the arteries, and trigger blood clots, setting the stage for a heart attack or stroke.

In addition, new evidence suggests a link between inflammation and high cholesterol levels. Mice were fed a high cholesterol diet that generated excessive amounts of the protein PCSK9, known to increase LDL levels. The researchers then used methods to block the inflammatory response NLRP3 in these mice. The result was a significant drop in PCSK9 released. This study found a definitive link between inflammation and raised cholesterol levels, especially high LDL.

The reverse is also true. High cholesterol can produce inflammation. High levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream means excess LDL leaks into the inner wall of arteries. The body automatically produces an inflammatory response and accelerates cholesterol accumulation. The result is a repeating cycle of inflammation and cholesterol buildup, often causing heart disease.

Toxins and pathogens that trigger cholesterol and inflammation

There is a surprising cause of cholesterol that conventional medicine overlooks: toxins and pathogens. Toxicity can not only raise cholesterol levels to an unhealthy range, but can also cause inflammation throughout the body. And since cholesterol and inflammation go linked and trigger each other, toxicity can exacerbate both issues.

Toxins that can exacerbate inflammation and cholesterol include:

  • Chemicals in processed foods/preservatives. Cholesterol is a vital component in the human body. You don’t need to be overly wary about natural cholesterol in foods like eggs or shrimp. It’s the chemicals and additives in processed foods you should watch for.
  • Certain preservatives. These include artificial trans fats and high fructose corn syrup, which raise the bad LDL cholesterol in the blood. When this imbalance occurs, cholesterol can accumulate in the gallbladder and the bloodstream, causing gallstones and plaque buildup.
  • Food additives. These are in the majority of processed foods used to enhance the food taste and shelf life. However, these chemicals impact organs in the body, such as the liver and kidney. This negatively affects the cells of the immune system, causing inflammation and contributing to metabolic dysregulation. Usually observed in obese individuals, this inflammation, called “meta-inflammation,” is a pathological condition of chronic low-grade inflammation. You can combat this inflammation and lower your cholesterol by consuming a healthier diet of whole, unprocessed vegetables, fruit, and lean protein.
  • Heavy metals. High levels of lead and mercury in the blood can cause high cholesterol levels. In one study, those with the highest levels of these metals in their blood: had a 56% greater chance of having higher total cholesterol if they had high levels of lead; were 22% more likely to have higher cholesterol if they had high lead levels; and were 73% more likely to have higher cholesterol if they had high levels of mercury.
  • Mold. Epidemiological evidence suggests a possible link between long-term exposure to toxigenic molds and high levels of cholesterol abnormalities that may increase the risk for cardiovascular diseases. Toxigenic molds release mycotoxins that negatively impact your health and could impair cholesterol metabolism. Individuals exposed to them might be at risk of cardiovascular diseases, neurological disorders, and stroke. Chronic mold exposure can also contribute to harmful inflammation levels in the body. In addition, exposure to molds is associated with changes in cytokine and chemokine production, which coordinate the immune response in your body.
  • Parasites. New studies have shown elevated levels of lipoproteins like HDL, LDL, and total cholesterol in patients suffering from parasitic infections. Researchers are still looking for the precise reason for this link. Cholesterol is synthesized in the liver, which is a major site of parasitic infection. Scientists hypothesize that parasites can take the lipids and cholesterol they need to survive from lipoprotein particles in the host’s gut.

Underlying health issues that impact cholesterol

High cholesterol is linked to coronary heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. In all of these cases, high cholesterol leads to plaque build-up in the arteries. The common factor among all these complications is inflammation. Therefore, addressing inflammation may lessen the effects of and improve the following issues:

  • Coronary heart disease. If cholesterol levels are too high, it can lead to hardening of the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. If left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to poor circulation, heart attack, or stroke. Diabetes — Diabetes can lead to high cholesterol levels. Diabetes brings increased risk of heart disease, and often lowers HDL and raises LDL. Staying on top of your cholesterol levels is crucial. Many people with type 1 diabetes are prescribed statins, which can keep cholesterol levels in a healthy range.
  • High blood pressure. High cholesterol levels are often linked to high blood pressure. When arteries harden and narrow with plaque, the heart strains to pump blood. Blood pressure can rise to dangerous levels. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can lead to heart attack or stroke. Over time, high blood pressure can damage arteries, although in a different way than high cholesterol can.
  • Ischemic stroke. High cholesterol can cause the arteries to harden and increase the risk of blood clots. This increases the risk of ischemic stroke. However, high cholesterol levels don’t seem to play a role in hemorrhagic stroke caused by a ruptured blood vessel.

Addressing cholesterol at the root level

You can address high cholesterol at the root level with natural support. Some natural substances that can help include berberine, which is found in plants such as European barberry, goldenseal, goldthread, Oregon grape, philodendron, and tree turmeric.

The health benefits of berberine have been known for many centuries. It is used to treat various medical conditions in Indian and Chinese medicine, including diabetes and hypertension.

Herbs with high amounts of berberine include:

  • Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)
  • Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis L)
  • Huanglian (Coptis chinensis)
  • Ohio grape root (Berberis aquifolium)

Researchers believe that berberine can increase the number of LDL receptors in the liver, which may help increase the clearance of LDL cholesterol from the body. Berberine also appears to act on signaling pathways involved in making fats in the body. Berberine blocks the absorption of lipids from the small intestine.

Reducing high cholesterol by addressing the root cause

By understanding what can contribute to high cholesterol levels and inflammation, you can take steps to lower dangerous cholesterol levels and inflammation. Check your cholesterol regularly and be mindful of the food you consume. In addition, go through a detox protocol, incorporate exercise into your daily routine, and address inflammation. By taking these measures and monitoring your progress, you can lower your cholesterol to healthy levels and improve your overall well-being.

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