For decades, Australians have been urged to watch their cholesterol levels and eat fewer foods containing saturated fats (from animals) —there’s even a margarine designed to lower one’s cholesterol and serve as a substitute to butter. But cholesterol is not the bad guy it’s been made out to be—in fact it’s an essential element in the functioning of your body, in particular the production of testosterone.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all cells of our body. Without sufficient concentrations of cholesterol we cannot live. Cholesterol is involved in most functions of the body and assists optimal aging and longevity. Cholesterol is essential for production of vitamin D which is linked to improved immune function, calcium and phosphorus regulation, gene expression and mental and emotional health. Cholesterol is essential for the formation of bile acids which are involved in the digestive breakdown of proteins and fats. It is vital for brain health, by forming the myelin sheaths that coat the cells and effect the release of neurotransmitters. It is also the precursor to balanced testosterone.
The cholesterol-testosterone dance
Testosterone is often referred to as the ‘fountain of youth’ hormone, because levels are at their highest during adolescence and early adulthood, and gradually decrease with age. When age-dependent testosterone levels are too low, there occurs reduced sexual desire, lower libido, fewer spontaneous erections, impotence (erectile dysfunction), infertility, emotional instability, a decrease in motivation and pride, a tendency to depression, memory loss and anxiety as well as changes to sleep patterns, reduced muscle bulk, tone and strength, decreased bone density, increased body fat and types of immune dysfunction. When age-dependent testosterone levels are too high there occurs higher blood pressure, overactive thyroid and other endocrine glands, excess and inappropriate calcium deposition, emotional instability with a tendency to aggression and bitterness, types of immune dysfunction, tendon damage, arthritis, and other ill health symptoms. The greater the variation of your testosterone levels from normal ranges, the greater will be your vulnerability to sickness and ageing.
Several studies have confirmed the connection between low cholesterol levels and low testosterone levels. The majority of men who take statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) for example, experience a drop in libido and an increase in erectile dysfunction as well as the other symptoms of lowered testosterone. It is known that the Leydig cells in the testes can create the most testosterone, and to do this, these cells require more cholesterol than other body cells. When blood cholesterol levels are forced down by statins, the Leydig cells (and the other cholesterol producing cells) ramp-up to maximum cholesterol production to keep testosterone levels normal for age. This becomes impossible over time, and low testosterone eventually results.
Your body has the ability to produce most of the cholesterol it needs from your liver, intestines, adrenal glands, and reproductive organs. It can also obtain cholesterol from fatty acid production via foods. If you eat foods supplying relatively high volumes of cholesterol, your body decrease its own production. If you do not eat foods with cholesterol, your body simply increases its production—unless it is suppressed with drugs.
‘Good’ and ‘bad cholesterol’
Cholesterol is transported throughout your body attached to carrier lipoproteins—which can be high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). For a long time HDL had been called ‘good’ cholesterol while LDL had been known as ‘bad cholesterol’. Today the tendency is to understand that neither are good nor bad. The reason why medical people assumed that HDL was ‘good’ was because it is the lipoprotein that removes cholesterol from the body by transporting it away from the body’s tissues to the liver where it is turned into bile and deposited into your intestines for eventual removal. Thus one of the functions of HDL is to remove excess cholesterol, which otherwise would concentrate throughout the arteries and lead to high cholesterol levels. The more available HDL you have, the greater chance your body has of removing excess cholesterol quickly. This is why HDL gained a ‘good’ reputation.
LDL was considered ‘bad’ cholesterol only because it delivers cholesterol to the body from its production sites. People who eat foods low in natural cholesterol, force their body to increase production of cholesterol and this also means LDL production to transport the cholesterol. While our body uses the cholesterol that LDL delivers, it can cause health problems in those people whose arteries are being constricted by inappropriate immune activity or plaque accumulation at certain junctions.
Higher concentrations of LDL can have difficulty moving through constricted arteries and can even totally block an artery—primarily leading to a heart attack. Consequently, most doctors focus on reducing LDL production to lessen this possibility. As people age, most suffer immune scarring and this is often linked to partial arterial constriction. So as you age and your health deteriorates, your doctor may recommend statins for you. But research has shown that increased consumption of saturated fats decreases the amount of LDL in your body. So if you eat the right amount of cholesterol containing saturated fats, your body can in turn, produce less to make up the balance, and this will also balance your LDL levels.
Current research is finding little or no connection between heart disease and eating fats—both the saturated and unsaturated varieties. But eating high trans fats on the other hand is certainly linked to circulatory problems.
The best question to be asked about the testosterone-cholesterol dance and foods is not: ‘Is eating high cholesterol foods good or bad for me?’ but rather: ‘Which foods should I eat and which should I avoid as I age, to help balance cholesterol and testosterone levels?’
From over 25 years of clinical practice, I have found the best foods to eat are flesh foods, eggs and butter. Reduce milk, cream and yoghurt as you age. Steer clear of any commercial foods using trans fats. Remove all grains from your diet. Limit the amount of fructose (fruits, sugar, fast foods, beer, wine) you consume (depending on your liver health). Eat only those salads, vegetables, herbs and spices that you know do not cause you ill-health symptoms. To discover what these are you may need to undertake your own Personal Food Trials to map out Your Signature Diet as you age. You should also aim to keep your weight optimal, engage in adequate exercise, have restful sleep (seven to 10 hours per night), and spend enough time in the sun to maintain optimal vitamin D levels.
To discover all the things you can do to live a long and healthy life, and to find out how you can undertake your own Personal Food Trials and create your own diet, come along to our Basics for Living a Long Health Life and Your Signature Diet workshops! I will be running one more workshop series for 2015 so sign up today and set yourself up for a happy healthy New Year!