- Patricia Pearce, ND
High Cholesterol & Atherosclerosis
(This article belongs to a series called "Metabolic & Cardiovascular Disease." It is meant to be educational, empowering, and based in current scientific research. Note that all suggestions are meant to be adjunctive and complementary to the therapies your primary care physician has prescribed for you. Naturopathy is a system of medicine that believes in discovering and correcting the underlying cause of disease through lifestyle-based interventions as well as client education and empowerment.)
Overview: What is high cholesterol and why do we want to lower it in the first place?
High cholesterol, or "hypercholesterolemia," as well as high lipids, or "hyperlipidemia," are terms that are basically used to refer to unhealthy levels of fat molecules in the blood. Basic lipid panels typically include:
Measures the total load of a molecule that lends structure to cell walls.
Think of it as "cellular bricks and mortar"
A "taxi cab" molecule responsible for carrying fat and cholesterol to various destinations in the body
Often referred to as the "bad" cholesterol (you want less of this guy)
Another taxi cab responsible for carrying fat and cholesterol from the rest of the body to liver for processing
Often referred to as the "good" cholesterol (you want more of this guy)
Triglycerides: The main form fat takes when it is in the blood
It's important that the levels of these various molecules are normal because elevated levels are involved in heart disease. The process of "atherosclerosis," which is just a fancy way to refer to clogged arteries, starts with damage to the inner wall of a blood vessel. This damage can be caused by free radicals, inflammation, high blood sugar, and much more. The body's response to damage is to "patch it" with fat and cholesterol. The more damage, the more cholesterol is needed to repair it. The downside to this process is that with repeated patch jobs, the opening of the blood vessel gets more and more narrow until it becomes completely blocked, which leads to life-threatening conditions like heart attack and stroke.
How is high cholesterol treated?
Conventional medical doctors frequently prescribe a drug called a "statin," to lower cholesterol levels. Statins work by blocking the enzyme (or catalyst) that is responsible for the creation of cholesterol. Some common statin drugs are rosuvastatin (Crestor), atorvastatin (Lipitor), simvastatin (Zocor), and others. Research shows that statin drugs are effective for lowering lipids and preventing cardiovascular events like stroke and heart attack (1) (2) (3) (4).
However, the adverse effects of statin drugs are well known and include:
Muscle cramps and weakness (5) (6) (7)
Peripheral neuropathy (11) (12) (13)
As well as potential side-effects like headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea,vomiting, memory loss, and more.
How is high cholesterol managed holistically?
Naturopathic doctors don't see cholesterol as the problem. Rather, we see it as an outward indicator of a much bigger issue, what you might call a "red flag," or "the tip of the iceberg." Of course, lowering cholesterol short-term through the use of medication is often beneficial and even essential. However, it is crucial to also address the big picture over the long-term, which is the inflammatory state that lead to blood vessel damage and cholesterol patches in the first place! Remember, cholesterol isn't "the bad guy," it's just cellular bricks and mortar. Therefore, naturopathic doctors seek to both lower total cholesterol and lipid load, as well as use targeted lifestyle interventions like diet, exercise, and supplementation to improve overall cardiovascular health and hopefully obviate the need for long term use of statin drugs.
Want access to some of the strategies I use to address high cholesterol in my office?