Last updated on December 19th, 2020
Are you confused about cholesterol? It’s not surprising, given the amount of bad press that it has had over the years. However, cholesterol is the building block of vitamin D and our sex hormones, including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. It’s also a critical component of cell membranes (the layer around the outside of each cell, that influence how well cells can communicate) and is highly concentrated in the brain. So, cholesterol is an extremely important substance for numerous biochemical pathways, and many aspects of our health.
Yet, it’s not a case of ‘the more the better’ and when our blood cholesterol levels are too high, this indicates that the body needs some support to effectively regulate this important substance. And, our daily choices play an enormous role in this.
Support your liver, support your cholesterol levels
The liver is responsible for about 80% of the cholesterol in our blood, while the other 20% comes from what we eat. So, I tend to see elevated cholesterol levels as an indicator that the liver needs support.
To understand the liver’s role in managing your cholesterol levels, you might like to picture it like a bus depot. Essentially, the cholesterol needs to be transported to and from the liver – imagine they are transported by ‘buses’. The buses that carry cholesterol away from the liver to other parts of the body are called LDL, and the ‘buses’ that carry cholesterol back to the liver are called HDL. Once the cholesterol passengers have hopped off the HDL bus back at the liver, they may be sent off for excretion.
When the liver needs some support, commonly LDL-cholesterol will be elevated and HDL-cholesterol will be lower than ideal, disrupting the ratio in your blood. You can imagine the chaos that would ensue in a bus depot if there were too many passengers heading in one direction and not enough being transported back.
The good news is, simple lifestyle steps can make an enormous difference in setting up an efficient bus depot. Supporting your liver can be done by focusing on eating mostly whole foods and including plenty of vegetables. The liver especially loves bitter foods (for example, green leafy vegetables, and Brassica family vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and brussel sprouts). In addition to this, antioxidant-rich foods (think colourful plant foods like red cabbage, beetroot, berries, kale and spinach) support liver detoxification and are wonderful for quenching harmful free radicals that can oxidise cholesterol, causing damage—so, the more colourful plants on your plate, the better!
Substances like alcohol, synthetic substances and highly processed and refined foods add to the liver’s task load, so you want to be sure to minimise or eliminate these.
Moving your body regularly also helps to support healthy cholesterol levels—specifically by helping to promote optimal levels of HDL-cholesterol (think buses transporting the cholesterol back to the liver, so that it can be sent off for excretion or used for other tasks where it is needed).
Let’s talk about fat
Improving the quality of the fats you consume plays an important role in helping the liver to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, too. When people experience high cholesterol, one of the first things they often want to do is reduce their fat intake, yet this isn’t necessarily the best approach—which may feel very opposing to the messages that have been conveyed to us previously.
As a rule of thumb, good quality fats include those found in whole, real foods, while poor quality fats are typically found in highly processed foods and takeaways.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that have an anti-inflammatory action, and they can also be beneficial for improving the profile of fats in your blood (known as your blood lipid profile). Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring, as well as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Monounsaturated fats, which are found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and extra virgin olive oil are also nourishing options.
Saturated fat is a controversial topic. Part of the challenge with this is that we can’t necessarily view all foods containing saturated fats in the same way, when it comes to their effect on our health. Different types of saturated fatty acids, as well as what nutrients the saturated fatty acids are combined with in the food, can alter how our body responds. So, comparing whole, real foods that contain some saturated fat, to highly processed foods that might be rich in saturated fat, isn’t comparing ‘like’ with ‘like’. That said, if you are trying to reduce your blood cholesterol levels, eating large amounts of saturated fat (including from more nutritious sources) isn’t recommended. There isn’t a set amount that is right for everyone as it will, of course, depend on the individual – the efficiency of their liver detoxification pathways, for example – as well as other aspects of their health, such as how much inflammation is already occurring. In general though, a really large amount of any one type of fat or food isn’t ideal, as our body tends to thrive on variety.
The fats you do want to avoid are called trans fats—these are formed when liquid vegetable oils undergo a process called hydrogenation during food processing. They are essentially damaged fats that adversely affect our blood lipid profile (including cholesterol levels) and liver health, and are typically found in commercially baked products like biscuits, cakes and pastries.
The role of the gut
When old cholesterol is no longer needed, the liver sends it to the gut to be excreted. So, we want this elimination pathway to be working efficiently. Recall, the passengers who got off the HDL bus at the depot—they need to be removed from the body. The best way to support a healthy gut and bowel regularity is with plenty of whole real foods, including plenty of plants. The plants provide your body with a variety of different types of fibres, some of which specifically help to carry old cholesterol out of the body. Foods like oats, beans, barley and psyllium are particularly high in this type of fibre. However, other fibre-rich whole foods are still incredibly beneficial, as some of our gut bacteria use this fibre to produce other substances that can help with keeping blood cholesterol in a health-supportive range.
Other factors that could be at play
Improving the quality of our food intake in a way that supports the liver and gut, plays a vital role in promoting healthy blood cholesterol levels. However, I always like to consider the ‘road in’ to any health challenge, as we need to understand this in order to know what the best ‘road out’ will be – understand what caused something and address that to correct it.
For example, improvements in cholesterol levels can sometimes happen if our body is better able to convert cholesterol into the other hormones that we require, such as our sex hormones. Zinc is a particularly important nutrient for this conversion, and we want to make sure we are getting enough of this critical nutrient so that the body can optimally utilise our cholesterol. Zinc is found in oysters, red meat (choose biodynamic or grass fed and finished red meats), seeds (especially pumpkin seeds/pepitas) and eggs. Many people today aren’t consuming optimal amounts of zinc which is why supplementation of this mineral is often beneficial.
Elevated cholesterol levels can also occur when the thyroid is underactive, so if this is occurring for an individual, thyroid health may be what they need to focus on to improve their cholesterol levels. Even a thyroid gland that isn’t working optimally—not yet a thyroid disease—may potentially have some effect on cholesterol levels (other thyroid-related symptoms are usually present if this is the case).
Very often though, if your blood cholesterol levels are elevated, it can be a sign that your liver needs some additional support and that you could do with a big increase in the amount of plant foods you are eating. And remember, it’s what you do every day that impacts your health, not what you do occasionally – so make sure that your every day choices help to look after that liver of yours!