I have high cholesterol. I'm not talking border-line high risk levels. I'm talking scary high levels. The kind you'd expect from someone who's 500 pounds and eats hot dogs and potato chips for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.
Except I'm not overweight, and I don't eat a high fat diet. In fact, when I mention my cholesterol levels to others (somehow it tends to be a topic of conversation with those of us slipping into middle-age), they gape, sputtering, "But you're thin!"
Ah, yes. Thanks for the compliment, and, by the way, sometimes high cholesterol is hereditary.
My levels generally hover around the 380's for total cholesterol. And in case you're a cholesterol novice, the American Heart Association recommends total cholesterol level to be below 200 mg/dL, stating this means the likelihood of developing heart disease is low, as long as other risk factors aren't in place, such as high blood pressure. But that's another blog article for another time.
As you can see, my risk level for heart disease is high according to the AHA. Yet I'm not 100% convinced cholesterol is the evil weapon of death doctors make it out to be.
Still, I'm always trying to lower it.
First, let me explain what makes up the total cholesterol numbers. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. The American Heart Association mentions that being under 100mg/dL is "optimal." LDL is considered the "bad" cholesterol. Lipoproteins are made of fat and protein (Medline Plus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003495.htm). Too much LDL being carried through the arteries can clog them.
HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. It's also called "good" cholesterol because it offers protection from heart disease. There are a number of theories about how this works, one being that it carries LDL from the body. However, this is simply a theory, there may be much more to it than that.
Cholesterol tests can also determine triglyceride levels, which are leftover calories stored in fat cells for later use. The American Heart Association states that under 150 mg/dL is a normal level.
In my studies on myself, when I avoid all meat (with the exception of fish), I generally lower my cholesterol level by 70 mg/dL. In 2002, after being a fish-eating vegetarian for several months, my total cholesterol level dropped to 301 mg/dL.
When I added a statin to my daily regimen, I actually was able to get my level down to 199 mg/dL.
I went back to eating meat when trying to conceive my first child, and remained that way for years (until recently). I also had to stop taking the statin. My levels went up again.
Last year, after having two children and no longer nursing the second one, I went back to check my levels. I'd not eaten red meat in years, and only consumed small amounts of turkey, pork and chicken. My levels: 337 mg/dL total. LDL: 272 mg/dL. HDL: 52. Triglycerides: 58.
I wanted to try Niacin before going back to a statin again.
Niacin is purported to raise one's HDL (considered the "good" cholesterol in your body) by 15-35%, according to the Mayo Clinic (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/niacin/cl00036). Niacin is one of the B vitamins, used to convert carbohydrates into energy.
I'm going to divulge my cholesterol numbers during this trial period. While on 500 mg. a day of Niacin, my total cholesterol dropped to 308. LDL: 239 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. While on 1000 mg. of Niacin, it went down a teensy bit more. Total: 293 mg/dL. LDL: 226 mg/dL. HDL: 55 mg/dL.
The totals weren't low enough to please my doctor, but boy! I was thrilled. Under 300? Great.
My doctor placed me on a statin, and I went off of the Niacin. Total cholesterol on 20 mg. of a stain: 240. LDL: 179 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 65 mg/dL. Cholesterol on 40 mg: 211 mg/dL. LDL: 147 mg/dL. HDL: 49 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 73 mg/dL.
Now I am going back to being a fish eating vegetarian, taking a statin, and exercising regularly. I am also trying to quit eating foods that contain white flour (more on the effects of bleached flour on our health in another post), and trying to consume less sugar. In a few months, I will know how effective all this is in lowering my cholesterol, and I will post the findings here. But this is what I hypothesize:
1) Niacin helps raise HDL cholesterol levels, but not enough to make a significant difference in my numbers.
2) Niacin helps lower LDL levels, but not enough for my levels to be where the American Heart Association feels they should be for better heart health.
3) Becoming a pesce-vegetarian (fish and dairy eating) lowers my numbers significantly.
4) Statins are an effective means for lowering cholesterol.
5) Statins alone will not bring my cholesterol down to a level that satisfies the American Heart Association's recommendations.
My biggest questions are: why do some people naturally produce an overabundance of cholesterol, and others don't? Why do some people with high cholesterol live long lives if it's such a terrible killer? Are cholesterol lowering drugs more hype than help? Another column, another day, but I will do my best to answer these questions and others like them.
For an interactive chart sent to me by the marketing manager of Healthline (which is very interesting to read, by the way) check out: http://www.healthline.com/health/cholesterol/effects-on-body