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The Cheers (and Jeers) of Cholesterol

on April 8, 2013

heart healthThe dreaded four-syllable word mentioned within most walls of any doctor’s office – especially for middle to older-aged adults; the sound of it alone evokes an image of a yellow-colored blob morphing its way to engulf you alive: CHOLESTEROL.  Since being a kid, cholesterol seemed like a dirty word – something that was only spoken of in the context of someone we knew having a heart attack, or heart disease, or needing to go on medicine to lower it.  All I knew is that whatever this cholesterol stuff was, I needed to steer clear of it.  As a result, the low-fat diet trend of the 90s (a.k.a. the “Eat-All-the-Sugar-And-Carbs-You-Want-To-As-Long-As-There’s-No-Fat-Diet”) really used ad campaigns slaughtering cholesterol as a platform to steer people away from things like butter, eggs, and pretty much anything with fat (and of course, cholesterol).  While over-indulging in too much of anything can have its problems, many of us were left in the dark about what cholesterol really IS and what its important role in the body serves for our well-being, especially in the developing brains and bodies of children.  I do recall my mother making sure that I ate butter and drank whole milk as a toddler and little kid, but never knew why other than she said, “The cholesterol’s good for your brain.”  This confused me, as I heard such problematic things being referred to cholesterol, but then why was it OK when I was young?!  Fast-forward 25 years and here’s the best explanation I can give; it’s important for everyone to know what cholesterol is and the role it plays in EVERYONE’S body:

Cholesterol: The Breakdown (And I’ll break it down as simple as possible)

  • Is made in the bodies of animals (including us humans) by the LIVER.
  • The body makes this waxy substance (that is technically a LIPID, or better known as a FAT) and is used to form important things like cell membranes (to keep cells healthy and generating properly) and some hormones.
    • Cholesterol is the predecessor to a host of other factors that your body uses as catalysts for all kinds of biological processes à
      • testosterone, the male hormone
      • cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that plays a critical role in managing stress.
      • Plants and plant-based foods (so these would be vegetables, fruits, seeds, and grains) do NOT make/contain cholesterol (so those bogus marketing claims on things like grains or veggie products that boast, “CHOLESTEROL FREE!”…..well, duh…).
        • The human body produces enough cholesterol (about 1,000 mg a day) to sustain life; we get the rest from the foods we eat.
        • The most common forms of cholesterol in the human diet include:
          • Egg yolks
          • Meat (especially red meat)
          • Poultry
          • Seafood (shrimp are high on the list)
          • Dairy products (milk, cheese, ice cream…)
          • Here’s a fun fact: Believe it or not, vitamin D and cholesterol are almost chemically the same.
            • Vitamin D is manufactured in your body from cholesterol (this happens in the skin, and only happens if a catalyst in the form of ultraviolet rays from the sun is present. If you’re wearing a sunscreen with an SPF level of 8 or greater, then you’re interfering with how your body can generate vitamin D).

 

 

Studies Linking Cholesterol to Healthy Neurological Development in Children

Back to the reason why I am writing this article, many people are confused about the many roles cholesterol plays (yes, even the harmful ones from overconsumption of unhealthy foods and lifestyle choices).  Some parents are afraid to give their babies and young children any form of cholesterol in fear that it will harm their heart health or make them overweight.  While this is a legitimate concern once children reach about age 6 or 7 and beyond, here is some compelling evidence to differentiate when and why cholesterol SHOULD be in a child’s diet (SOURCES: Dr. Mercola, Medical Hypotheses, Scientific American Mind, Neuroscience Research Communications, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition):

  • The most crucial role for both vitamin D and cholesterol in the embryo is in the development of the brain and central nervous system.
  • The human brain makes up only 2 percent of the body’s weight, but it contains nearly 25 percent of its total cholesterol, so it’s easy to imagine that the supply chain had better be loaded with cholesterol.
  • A human child’s brain undergoes tremendous development outside the womb: mostly from birth to two years of age.
    • As the child experiences sensory inputs from the eyes, the ears, the skin, it sprouts a massive overgrowth of nerve fibers and connects these up at millions of synaptic junctions throughout the brain.
      • For this growth to take place, it needs an abundant and steady supply of both cholesterol and vitamin D, which it should be getting from its mother’s milk supply, as well as its own exposure to the sun.
      • On a good supply of fatty mother’s milk, the human baby quickly fills out with layers of fat on its thighs and upper arms.  It is believed that one of the biggest roles all this extra fat plays is to maintain a reserve supply of nutrients to help feed the rapidly growing brain. By the age of two, the child has typically thinned out, but in the meantime, this body fat has served as an excellent buffer to maintain a consistent supply of fat to nourish the explosive growth of myelin sheath throughout its brain.
      • One of the critical things that happens during the development of the embryonic brain is the growth of millions of nerve fibers or “axons” to form connections among all the neurons in the developing brain.  The human infant must construct this marvel of nature from raw materials it obtains from the mother’s supply chain.
        • These axons are coated with a thick fatty substance called the myelin sheath, which provides insulation that keeps the signal intact and allows for fast and long-distance transport with minimal loss.
          • This myelin sheath has very high cholesterol content — higher than that of any other brain tissue.
    • According to Ursula Dicke and Gerhard Roth, it is the extra length and extra thickness of the myelin sheaths around the nerve fibers of the human brain that most clearly differentiates it from the brains of other mammals.
      • Humans uniquely need even more fat in the baby’s milk for a good reason: the infant needs to grow substantially more, longer, and thicker myelin sheaths than any other animal.
      • The myelin sheath, which insulates all the nerve fibers in the nervous system, is made entirely from fat. In a series of experiments, researchers in Professor Bartzokis’ lab, professor of neurology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, have been conducting very fascinating research over the past several years on the role of the myelin sheath in neurological disorders .
        • Bartzokis’ lab have demonstrated, very logically, that a thinning and breakdown in the myelin sheath can expose the nerve beneath, with the likely consequence of a multitude of neurological and behavioral problems.
          • Without adequate insulation, cells won’t be able to communicate intact signals to one another.
          • In addition to the nerve fibers, a substantial component of your brain is made up of glial cells, which intermix with the neurons and are thought to provide nutrients and regulate a form of “pruning” – our brains go through a system of cells dying off in stages, while some cells continue to live.
            • In 1997, it was discovered that a factor secreted by these glial cells played a critical role in initiating the growth of synapses (which are the locations of junctions/connections  between nerve fibers where messages are sent/received).
              • By 2001, this unknown factor had been identified as cholesterol.
              • A comprehensive study showed that cholesterol supplied through external means (not produced by the body) could substitute for this glial cell substance to produce highly efficient functioning brain message systems.
              • Studies also showed that is cholesterol was removed from the glial cell secretion, the glial cells lost the ability to stimulate synapse growth (messages and brain firing halted and/or was reduced).
              • At around the age of two, the normal child’s brain undergoes a massive pruning stage. Through the sensory experiences it has accumulated during its first two years of life, the glial cells in its brain have been constantly making note of which fibers transmitted useful signals to which neurons at which synapses. It has been adjusting during this process and can then identify those nerve fibers that turned out to be counterproductive, therefore leading to a process of apoptosis (cell death) on a magnificent scale.
                • In studies on the brains of autistic children, it has been observed that one of the most striking issues is that their brains seem to be unwilling to perform the massive pruning through apoptosis at age two.
                  • This could be because their brain’s glial cells don’t know which nerve fibers are unproductive. Signal transmission was unreliable throughout their first two years of life due to the poorly constructed myelin sheath. As the signal tried to travel down a pathway, noise eventually overtook it, and the distinction between productive and unproductive pathways was hopelessly blurred.

v  To compound this problem, as we have seen, the signaling to control apoptosois depends critically on both cholesterol and vitamin D, so that, even if a glial cell was aware that it should prune a particular axon, it might not be able to execute on that plan.

  • Another critical role that cholesterol plays in your nervous system is in forming areas in your cell membrane where certain proteins important to cell signaling are anchored. In a 2004 study, it was found that these so-called “lipid rafts” stimulate and guide the growth of nerve axons. Cholesterol deprivation has been demonstrated to destroy the axon’s ability to grow in the proper direction.
  • While Alzheimer’s is perhaps Professor Bartzokis’ main area of interest, increasingly of late he has come to believe that defective development of the myelin sheath in the nerve fibers of the developing fetus’s and/or infant’s brain could be one of the critical factors that leads to autism.
    • He also suspects that ADHD could be caused by a disruption of brain growth during early childhood. He hypothesizes that ADHD and autistic spectrum disorder could be due to the same toxic chemical, but that the exposure occurred at different points in the child’s development (for example, that different parts of the brain are myelinated at different times, and, depending on when the damage was done, the symptoms could manifest as either autism or ADHD).
      • While he seems to suspect a toxin in the environment, I believe that it could be attributable to an absence rather than a presence: the absence of an adequate supply of both vitamin D and cholesterol.
      • In an interview, Professor Bartzokis was quoted as saying:

“The thicker and heavier the cells’ coat, the faster and more effective their communication. Myelination, a process uniquely elaborated in humans, arguably is the most important and most vulnerable process of brain development as we mature and age.”

  • A recent study which measured cholesterol levels for children with autism found a striking correlation between low cholesterol and symptoms of either autism or Aspberger’s syndrome (now I’m not saying that if your child has low cholesterol, he/she will be diagnosed with Autism… this is just a scientific correlation).

And Important Info to Know For Everyone – Good vs. Bad Cholesterol

Once produced in the liver or taken in through the diet, cholesterol just doesn’t hop and skip around the body on its own – it has to combine with special proteins called LIPOPROTEINS (meaning “fat proteins”) to travel through the bloodstream to where it’s needed.  (Think of the lipoproteins as special delivery vehicles).

  • There are 2 types of LIPOPROTEINS (I’ve talked about these briefly in other Megan Monday articles):
    • LDL – low-density lipoprotein (this is known as the “bad” cholesterol); these are actually broken up further into more subcategories (when we get blood tests to measure our LDL, we only see one score because the different types are usually not segregated, therefore the measure of the neutral and harmful type are combined.  You can ask for a specific test to have your levels segregated to have a more accurate reading) –
      • LDLa (“neutral type”; large, buoyant, and doesn’t contribute to arterial plaque build-up)
      • LDLb (this is the small, dense LDL molecules that don’t float and actually get under cells in the body, staring inflammation and plaque formation)

LDLs are the primary cholesterol carriers.  Too much of this in the bloodstream can build up on the walls

of the arteries (especially if there is inflammation in the body) that lead to the heart and the brain  à

this then leads to a thick and hard plaque build-up (which causes blood vessels to become damaged,

stiffer, narrower, or blocked altogether à this condition is known as atherosclerosis, which affects more

than just the heart and brain: it can restrict blood flow to other vital organs, including the intestines or

kidneys).

  • Diets high in SATURATED FATS from animal sources and TRANS-FATS lead to higher LDL levels
  • Dietary fats in general raise LDLa levels specifically
  • Some genetics play a role – cholesterol levels can be inherited
  • Believe it or not, carbohydrates raise LDLb levels, which is thought to be a cause of much of the cholesterol problems in the US…the Standard American Diet is full of processed carbohydrates!
  • Obesity is a major factor in higher LDL levels (and this could be tied to lack of exercise as well)
  • HDL – high-density lipoprotein (this is known as the “good” cholesterol); this carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s processed and sent out of the body, and might even help remove cholesterol from existing plaques.
    • high levels of HDL can help protect the circulatory system
    • Foods to Eat to help raise HDL levels: (foods high in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats à

OMEGA 3s!!)
• Healthy, clean, sustainable fish choices like: salmon (high poly-unsaturated fat; specifically Omega-3)
• Oils in moderation and not cooked with high heat: olive, grapeseed,  sunflower oil (high mono- and poly- unsaturated fat)
• Nuts and Seeds (in moderation): walnuts, almonds, sunflower, cashew, peanut butter (mono- and poly-unsaturated fats; some saturated fats as well)

 

I know I just threw a ton of scientific jargon at you, laced with lots of scientific evidence that could leave you wanting to curse me out (and your head spinning).  While some of the info presented might be flying by over your head, hopefully I was able to explain what cholesterol is, why it’s important for fetuses, infants, and children under age two, and then how to safely transition your child (and family) to healthy cholesterol levels, as we know that too much can lead to health issues.  I just want parents especially to be aware of how beneficial healthy cholesterol levels are for children and to not allow concerns over high cholesterol levels of adults to steer you in the wrong direction for feeding your family.

Here are some ways to help keep your family’s cholesterol at healthy levels:

Once your child is over age two, you can start monitoring cholesterol more carefully.

  • Know your own cholesterol level — and if it’s high, ask to have your kids’ levels checked.
  • Serve a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Choose from a variety of protein foods, including lean meats and poultry, eggs, fish, nuts, beans, peas, and soy products.
  • Read nutrition facts labels so that you can limit cholesterol and saturated and trans fat intake.
  • The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping dietary fat intake between 30%-40% for kids 1-3 years old and between 25%-35% for kids 4 to 18 years, with most fats coming from sources of unsaturated fats, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
  • For kids older than 2 years and teens, limit:
    cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams a day, saturated fats to less than 10% of calories, trans fats as much as possible to less than 1% of calories.
  • Limit beverages and foods with added sugars.
    • Limit commercially prepared baked goods and serve healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip, lite air-popped popcorn, etc.
    • Get plenty of exercise. Exercise helps boost HDL levels in the blood — and that’s a good thing! Kids and teens should be physically active at least 60 minutes a day.
    • Model healthy habits and behaviors for your children by practicing what you preach – make this a concern for the whole family.
    • Discuss any health concerns you have around cholesterol with your family’s doctor.
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