Overlooked Health Risks
Good Cholesterol: Tips for raising total and HDL cholesterol levels
One of the questions I get asked frequently about my connective tissue disorder web site is, "Aren't you worried about your cholesterol being too high from eating saturated fats in your diet?" My answer is "No". While we hear a lot about it being desirable to keep cholesterol levels low, recent research shows that very low cholesterol levels may be just as unhealthy as very high cholesterol levels. Unfortunately the dangers of low cholesterol have been less well publicized.
I have a number of health books that have entries on how to prevent high cholesterol, but none with entries on how to prevent or treat abnormally low cholesterol.
My cholesterol levels used to be unusually low. When I had my cholesterol levels tested about 15 years ago, the technician who was reporting the results of my test told me that my cholesterol levels were so low, she usually only saw those kinds of readings in marathon runners. I realize now, over a decade later, that these unusually low numbers should have been a red flag that my body wasn't manufacturing cholesterol like it should.
Abnormally low levels of cholesterol may indicate:
Manganese deficiency has also been linked to low cholesterol levels in lab rats (hypocholesterolemia).
While high cholesterol levels may be indeed be warning signs of many health issues, it does not logically follow then that all cholesterol is bad and you should try to wipe out any cholesterol in your body. We need cholesterol to build and maintain cell membranes, for production of sex hormones, to aid in the manufacture of bile (which helps digest fats), and to convert sunshine to vitamin D. Cholesterol is also important for the metabolism of fat soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. Check out How Stuff Works: Cholesterol to find out more about the role of cholesterol in our bodies and the many important functions it performs.
The BBC news reported in 1999 that low cholesterol levels were linked, in both men and women, to depression and anxiety. In a separate story on the same topic, MSNBC reported that, a study conducted in South Korea found that depressed patients with low cholesterol levels may be more likely to commit suicide.
Patients with low cholesterol levels have been observed to have impulsive, aggressive behavior. One researcher noted that people taking cholesterol lowering drugs seemed to be dying at an unusually high rate from causes unrelated to cardiovascular disease. Many seemed to be "smashing their cars into bridges and doing all sorts of impulsive and violent things."
Hemorrhagic strokes are also linked to cholesterol levels that are below normal. One study found that men with cholesterol levels below 150 mg/dl had four times the risk of cerebral hemorrhage compared with men with cholesterol levels above 190 mg/dl.
A team led by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has found that prenant women who have very low cholesterol levels have an increased chance of delivering a premature baby. Previous studies have shown that women with very high colesterol levels also have an increased risk of premature birth. This recent study find that low maternal cholesterol levels may lead to adverse birth outcomes, including low birth weight and premature birth.
Before researching all of my health problems and changing my diet, I believe I did have issues with malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies, which may have explained in part my unusually low cholesterol levels. Before changing my diet, I could eat all day long and stay relatively slender. Now that I've improved my digestion and changed my diet, I've put on weight. My cholesterol levels are still on the low side at 164, but they are at least now in the range considered "normal". One of the changes that I made to my diet was to increase my intake of saturated fat. I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but for me it seems to have improved my health, especially my breathing.
I used to have mitral valve prolapse, a heart condition linked to many other conditions, including anxiety disorders and bleeding tendencies. After I changed my diet, my MVP symptoms decreased, I felt more relaxed and my cholesterol levels went up. I don't think this was a coincidence. I do wonder if low cholesterol levels are a factor in other people who have MVP, anxiety problems and bleeding tendencies. (For more information, read my section on MVP. For more information on bleeding problems see my sections on Vitamin K deficiency, menorrhagia and/or epistaxis (nose bleeds.)
At 164, my total cholesterol levels are slightly above the levels linked to the anxiety disorder risk groups (160), but still within the hemorrhagic stroke risk group threshold (below 180). I don't think it will hurt to try to get my cholesterol levels into the 180 range or higher. I plan to read up more on the subject of low cholesterol and try to figure out why mine remains relatively low, despite my new diet with an emphasis on animal products and saturated fat. So, to have a long answer to a short question, "No, I'm not worried about my cholesterol levels being too low. If anything, I'm trying to get them higher."
For further reading on the benefits of saturated fat, I highly recommend the book, Your Body Knows Best, by Ann Louis Gittelman. Besides being a good book on healthy diets in general, the book has a whole chapter just on fats, including topics such as:
Here's some quotes from the book on the subject of saturated fats and cholesterol, "Saturated fats play a positive role in the human body. They provide a good source of stored energy, they cushion the organs against shock, and they insulate vital tissues against the cold....There are problems associated with saturated fat in the diet, but they are related more to excessive consumption and to the lack of regulating EFAs (essential fatty acids)......We tend to overeat saturated fats not because we are eating too many fresh, thick steaks but because we unwittingly eat fats that are separated from the original food sources and used in a variety of ways in commercial food production."
Good Cholesterol: Tips for raising total and HDL cholesterol levels
Related sections of interest:
Review of the different types of fat from the Austin Chronicle and who can benefit from the consumption of each. - "What is food to one may be fierce poison to others." - Until this bedrock concept is incorporated into the thinking of everyone in the field of nutrition, passionate disagreements will continue.
Weston A. Price Foundation - articles on the benefits of traditional, natural sources of animal and vegetable fat in the diet (including saturated fats), contrasted to the health issues associated with oils commonly used in commercial food processing.
For a list of books that helped my connective tissue disorder symptoms, including my please see my recommended book list.
For the diet
changes that helped my connective tissue disorder symptoms, see my section
on Ehlers-Danlos Diet Changes.