One of my dearest friends called me recently in distress. He was sick with a bad cold. Nothing serious, but he was frustrated because he hardly ever gets sick. A few weeks before that, he had to cancel our long-overdue meeting because he couldn’t get a wink of sleep the previous night for no apparent reason and was simply too tired to drive the next day. These seemingly unrelated events of compromised health in my dear friend’s case were of no major alarm to me. Until I learned that his cholesterol is 177 and he’s on a large dose of a cholesterol-lowering drug, just like millions of other Americans. This might surprise you, but low cholesterol is, in many ways, more dangerous than high cholesterol, especially as it pertains to a man in his 60’s or older, like my friend.
So what is so important about cholesterol?
Let’s start with the brain. Although the brain comprises only about 2.5% of your total body weight, about 25% of all cholesterol in your body is found there. In the brain, cholesterol maintains the structural integrity of the membrane of every cell, acts as an antioxidant for brain matter, and is a crucial building block for the production of pre-hormones that lead to the production of vitally important final hormones like testosterone, cortisol, aldosterone, estrogen, and so forth. Furthermore, cholesterol is required for the formation of myelin, a fatty material that surrounds nerve fibers. Myelin serves as electrical insulation for nerve cells and facilitates the conduction of nerve impulses throughout the nervous system.
Then it should come as no surprise that quite a few studies have identified low cholesterol as a risk factor for memory decline and cognitive deficits. Even in patients with Parkinson’s Disease, higher total serum cholesterol levels were linked to the slower progression of the disease and hence slower decline in patients’ quality-of-life.
Ever-so-popular statin drugs (cholesterol-lowering medications) inhibit cholesterol production in the body and therefore have the potential to affect the brain. In fact, the FDA now requires that the packaging for these drugs includes warnings about memory impairment.
So, when my friend said he couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t help but think that his brain physiology might have been negatively impacted by his high daily dosage of statins.
Now, what about his cold? Well, cholesterol is also crucial for a healthy immune system. The cells of our immune system rely on cholesterol to fight infectious agents as well as for repair after the fight, since cholesterol is a critical component of the outer membrane of these cells. Studies show that even “bad” cholesterol (LDL) is not so bad after all. It binds and inactivates dangerous bacterial toxins, stopping them from inflicting damage on the body. One of the most debilitating toxins is produced by MRSA bacteria. MRSA is becoming increasingly common in hospitals and has been responsible for a large number of hospital deaths. Studies have shown that people who fall prey to this lethal toxin often have very low total cholesterol. In fact, people with low total cholesterol are more prone to all kinds of infections, they take longer to recover from them, and are more likely to die from serious infections.
Studies demonstrate that low cholesterol becomes even riskier in people aged 60 and older. But how low is too low?
For people aged 60 and over, research data suggest that total cholesterol levels below 170 are associated with a 50% increase in mortality risk for all causes. In contrast, data suggest that total cholesterol over 200 is associated with a 20% decrease in overall mortality for the same age group over the next 10 years. My personal recommendation for those aged 60 or older? Stay between 200 to 250 in total cholesterol, and never ever go below 180.
For this article, I’ve addressed only two of the benefits of cholesterol: a) preserving cognition and b) fighting infections. I will address other advantages of healthy cholesterol levels next time, but to whet your appetite, they include: cancer-fighting properties, prevention of hemorrhagic stroke, and maintaining telomere length (longevity benefit). Hopefully, you are beginning to appreciate the importance of cholesterol. Indeed, evolution wouldn’t have imposed it on us if it didn’t make us better able to survive.
So it seems that my Russian grandmother knew what she was doing feeding me fish eggs, egg yolks, and butter, all very rich in cholesterol, when I was sick. Of course, her knowledge was only based on conventional folklore wisdom, not on all the scientific evidence we have now, but hey, some of the best treatment options are derivatives of the folklore wisdom of our ancestors. Here’s to real fat butter and sour cream and to maintaining healthy cholesterol levels!
So very truly yours,
When it comes to your health, you’ve got questions. But are you asking the right ones? In her book, Asking for Trouble: 8 Questions You Should Ask (But Aren’t), physician, health advisor, and patient advocate Dr. Inna V. Desch challenges some of the most widely accepted (and wrongheaded) notions about how to get and stay healthy. Order HERE.