I would argue, it's more the question of what does your cholesterol do for your gut. You may understand that there are multiple components to that overall number that feels like doom's day when you have to have the talk with your doctor. You probably think "great, another number to lower into the abyss." Think again, friend. Let's talk about what what cholesterol does to your gut.
Let's recap what those pesky numbers mean really quick (for those of you who haven't been exposed to "the talk with your doctor yet).
HDL- Stands high- density lipoproteins. This is the "good" cholesterol, or the cholesterol that is circulating through the blood back to your liver.
LDL- Stands low- density lipoproteins. This is the "bad" cholesterol, or the cholesterol that is left circulating freely in the blood around the body. Excess LDL will cause a build up in the blood vessels, forming a substance called "plaque."
TG- Stands for triglycerides. Triglycerides are made from the excess calories that your body eats and does not use immediately. These are stored in your fat cells, and are released by hormones when your body is ready to use them.
VLDL- This is one that is not traditionally measured on your general cholesterol panel when you get your blood work done; it stands for very- low- density- lipoproteins. These lipoproteins are manufactured by your liver and sent out into the bloodstream to carry fats (such as cholesterol and triglycerides) throughout the body to where they are needed.
Did you know? Fats can't travel through your bloodstream alone- they need a buddy! Hence why you also have VLDL.
When you get your blood tested for cholesterol levels, the main numbers you will see (and the corresponding ideal ranges that these numbers ideally fall into) are HDL, LDL, TG, and Total Cholesterol.
What happens when my cholesterol is high?
No joke, that's what a doctor told me one time when my HDL marker was high- high enough to be almost out of range! Thankfully, my Mum works in the medical field too and she was able to quell my teenage angst with the reassuring concept that HDL is the good one, LDL is the bad one.
Cholesterol is a bit more nuanced than simply looking at the overall number. If the overall number is high, with a corresponding elevated HDL, it means you have more cholesterol working for you as opposed to against you. If the overall number is high, with a corresponding elevated LDL or TG, it means that your cholesterol is working against you (and in cases where the number is out-of-range high, it could be a greater health concern).
What does cholesterol do for your gut?
Cholesterol is involved in bile production.
Your gut uses bile to help break down and absorb nutrients. It is produced in the pancreas, released by your liver, and stored in your gallbladder. When food is transiting through the end of your stomach and starting to enter the small intestines, bile is secreted to aid in the breakdown of food for nutrient absorption.
If you have too much cholesterol (bile) stored in the gallbladder, hard deposits are formed- aka, gallstones).
In more drastic cases, if your liver is over- burdened by excess cholesterol, it can become enlarged and this poses a threat to your overall health and well- being.
OH NO. I want my cholesterol to be as low as possible!!
Don't panic. Remember, your cholesterol does very important things in your body. It:
produces bile, which aids digestion.
is the foundation for steroid hormone production, which regulates the reproductive system of both male- identifying and female- identifying humans.
is a component of the plasma membrane in the body's cells (and there are billions of those in your body).
manufactures Vitamin D3 in the body- yep, your body makes Vitamin D!
Influencer sensationalists will tell you- "avoid XX foods because it's bad for your cholesterol." Better yet, "don't take the statin that the doctor prescribed you, it'll make you worse!"
Don't listen. If you know that your doctor is prescribing a statin for you as a proactive measure, here are a few things you can do to help that statin work more effectively so that you can potentially stop taking it sooner.
Help your cholesterol work better for you, and your gut.
Eat in a way that follows a Mediterranean- style diet- following a diet that is rich in plants, whole grain breads and cereals, beneficial fats, and less processed forms of protein has been researched to improve cholesterol numbers, as well as overall metabolic health. Think whole grains, nuts, legumes, seeds, vegetables, fruits, olives and olive oil, chicken and fish, natural milk and yogurt, fresh/ dried herbs and spices.
Exercise regularly (and maybe more than you are currently)- a meta-analysis of studies on the impact of exercise on cholesterol and blood pressure concluded that supervised aerobic and resistance training led to improvements in blood markers. Generally speaking, aiming to increase exercise frequency is what led to improvements in blood markers in this meta- analysis. Consider where you are at the moment in terms of your activity frequency and aim to increase it by one and a half times your current amount.
Manage your stress- Elevated blood pressure corresponds with elevated cholesterol levels. Consider introducing midday breath work, evening rituals of bullet journaling or expressing gratitude, or taking more time in the mornings to get a bit of fresh air before heading into your work day.
Avoid smoking- Eliminating smoking and/ or frequent tobacco use can help your liver function better. Remember, your liver plays a role in both the production of cholesterol and elimination of excess cholesterol.
Maintain a healthy weight- Study subjects who are overweight or obese tend to carry excess fat stores with decreased muscle mass. By maintaining a weight that is healthy for you, you run less of a risk of carrying these extra fat stores, and having enough muscle mass to fuel a lower concentration of fat stores overall.