THERE IS great confusion in the minds of many on the issue of cholesterol. Due to powerful propaganda from the drug manufacturers, most people worry about the cholesterol level in their blood being too high. Unfortunately, they never give a thought to the dangers of low cholesterol, especially when it results from taking medication.
This almost religious dedication to lowering cholesterol levels at any cost has become so common that nearly every reader will know someone trying to do so or has been struggling to do so himself.
Doctors are now prescribing cholesterol-lowering drugs even to people with normal cholesterol levels on the pretext that it will lower their risk of a heart attack.
Cholesterol is not the enemy
You must remember that cholesterol is a natural substance that is necessary and good for you as it is present in every cell in your body. It is made by your liver and is needed to produce healthy cell membranes, critical for cellular function.
Cholesterol is the basic material used by the body to make essential hormones like oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and many others in both men and women.
It is the cholesterol in the cells of your skin that sunshine converts into vital vitamin D. It is cholesterol that the liver uses to produce bile to aid digestion while detoxifying the blood. The brain uses cholesterol for neurological function and in the creation and storage of your memories. Yes, cholesterol is critical to your very existence!
Contrary to popular belief, a high blood cholesterol level in and of itself is not a disease but a symptom. It is actually the body's response to some imbalance (e.g. hormonal) or chemical disturbance like inflammation. Cholesterol production increases whenever your cells become inflamed and damaged as it is essential for healing.
When cells are damaged, your body signals the liver to produce and release more cholesterol into your bloodstream in an effort to repair the damage. Conventional medical wisdom responds to the cholesterol rise by prescribing toxic cholesterol-lowering drugs, while a more reasonable approach would begin by searching for what caused this elevation in the first place.
Often inflammation-induced damage is brought on by an unhealthy lifestyle - a diet high in sugar, simple carbohydrates, and excess processed, overcooked foods, not enough exercise, emotional stress, and environmental toxins like cigarette smoke.
The remedy naturally involves first correcting these problems. If you lower your cholesterol artificially without addressing the underlying causes, your body will not heal.
The risks of low cholesterol
The commonest causes of low cholesterol are the popular cholesterol-lowering drugs called the 'statins', hormonal disorders like an overactive thyroid gland or an underactive adrenal gland, malnutrition, liver disease, or chronic illness like cancer.
When your cholesterol levels go too low, many bad things happen in your body.
Mental health disorders
Very recent Canadian research looked at cholesterol levels and suicide risk. The investigators found that the lower a person's blood cholesterol level, the higher was the person's risk of committing suicide.
Back in 1999, research in South Korea revealed that depressed patients with low cholesterol levels were more likely to commit suicide. BBC news at the same time also reported that low cholesterol levels were linked to increased depression and anxiety in both men and women.
Other research has revealed a connection between low cholesterol and aggressive, impulsive, and violent behaviour. It may also increase one's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, memory loss, and Parkinson's disease.
Other low cholesterol dangers that could contribute to mental illness include liver damage, poor response to certain medications, inability to absorb and use some vitamins, osteoporosis, and vision impairment.
Bleeding in the brain or hemorrhagic strokes are also linked to low cholesterol levels. One study found that men with total cholesterol levels below 3.9 mmol/l (150 mg/dl) had four times the risk of a stroke compared with men with cholesterol levels above 4.9 mmol/l (190 mg/dl).
Hormones and cholesterol
Hormones are powerful and important substances produced by various glands in the body. The hormones produced by the adrenal glands, the testicles, and the ovaries are all made from cholesterol. When enough cholesterol is not available for the manufacture of these substances, many problems occur.
Pre-existent hormonal imbalances as commonly occur with the menopause, the andropause, pre-menstrual syndrome, adrenal dysfunction, and chronic stress disorders will worsen. New hormonal disturbances like infertility issues will also arise. Overactivity of the thyroid gland is a cause of low cholesterol levels, and low thyroid function may be the underlying cause for an elevation in cholesterol.
Vitamin D and cholesterol
Vitamin D is vital to optimal health but is really a steroid hormone, not a vitamin. It is created when the ultra violet rays of the sun transform cholesterol in the epidermal cells of the skin into vitamin D3. A depletion of the body's cholesterol levels can compromise its ability to make vitamin D.
This vitamin is critical to our circulation, blood pressure, and blood sugar control, bone and joint health, immune system, cancer risk, hormonal balance, and reproductive and mental health. Low cholesterol can cause harm in all these areas.
In addition, sunshine converts ordinary cholesterol into a special form called cholesterol sulphate. This is a particularly healthy form of cholesterol.
Cholesterol and mortality
Research on the relationship between low cholesterol and mortality was reported in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology in 1992. The study concluded that a low cholesterol level was associated with an increased mortality, especially in the elderly. Although often prescribed, I recommend extreme caution in the use of cholesterol lowering drugs in the elderly.
The take-home message when it comes to cholesterol is: Lower is not necessarily better. If your cholesterol is elevated, first try to find the cause and correct it. Do not get caught up in the trap of just using drugs to get your cholesterol level low.
You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at email@example.com or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book , 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women', is available locally and on the Internet.