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Skinny Without Willpower

Thursday, September 24, 2009


This is the follow up of my last article and an attempt at elucidating the role of cholesterol in the human body and why it’s not the axis of evil as it’s made out to be.

Cholesterol belongs to a class of substance called steroids. It’s wax like and is essential for the proper functioning of cells in the human body. In recent decades it has been maligned as the most nefarious substance to be found in the human body, mainly by the vegetable oil industry (post WW II) and lately by the pharmaceutical industry that make cholesterol lowering statin drugs. While the real truth is that Cholesterol is not only beneficial to the human body but also essential for many of the proper body functions. Most of the cholesterol found in the body is synthesized in the liver, more than anything you will ever get from any diet. Some of the vital functions of cholesterol are:

Cholesterol is a vital component of all the cell membranes. Without cholesterol in the cell membranes our cells wouldn’t have the 3-dimensional structure they now have. They would be as flat as a pancake. This role of cholesterol has profound implications for brain and nerve cell functionality and longevity in spite of how simple it sounds. Nerve cells and brain cells are the ones that use the most cholesterol since they don’t multiply like other cells and need to maintain their rigidity and longevity. So what happens when cholesterol levels go down, with say the use of a statin drug? The result is the onset of nerve cell and brain cell death due to which poor brain function, depression, memory loss, suicidal tendencies increase and get worse as the dosage of statin is increased. In fact there is a very good book about this titled: Lipitor- thief of memory by Dr. Duane Graveline. There are other very good studies done at Johns Hopkins on the benefits of Ketogenic diet (KD) on the human brain [1]. A Ketogenic diet is very high in fat (mostly saturated fats from butter, cheese, Bacon and other red meats) with minimal carbohydrates and enough protein to sustain growth. In this study the authors have shown how KD can help children with epilepsy. When other conventional medications for the treatment of epilepsy fail a child is put on KD for a period of two years and in most cases the child is fully cured. The study further went on to show that KD can provide symptomatic and disease-modifying activity in a broad range of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and may also be protective in traumatic brain injury and stroke. Stanford children’s hospital has some information about KD and treatment for epilepsy in children here:

There are other studies [2] that show that a deficiency of cholesterol hinders with the oxytocin receptor, ligand activity and G-protein coupling of the serotonin-1A receptor in the brain leading to autism spectrum disorders (ASD). They have shown that individuals treated with dietary supplementation of cholesterol display fewer autistic behaviors, infections, and symptoms of irritability and hyperactivity, with improvements in physical growth, sleep and social interactions. Other behaviors shown to improve with cholesterol supplementation include aggressive behaviors, self-injury and temper outbursts.

An interesting article on the CNN health website talks about the risks of low cholesterol and its connection to depression and violent behavior. It lists some studies that have shown a link between low cholesterol levels and the risk for depression and violent behavior. Just like reference [2] it shows that low cholesterol levels might lead to low serotonin activity in the brain which in turn leads to violent and aggressive behavior. By the way exercise has shown to increase serotonin activity in the brain (another reason to start exercising). The CNN article can be found here:

The effect on low cholesterol on muscle cells has been studied by researchers at the Texas A&M University [3]. Various mechanisms of statin toxicity have been identified in the case of muscle cells. These factors reduce muscle mass, energy, vitality and lead to general lack of fitness. In this study they compared two groups of people on a strict exercise regimen but one of them was given statin drugs while the other was given a placebo. They found that the group that took cholesterol lowering statin drugs had a lower muscle strength gain. Muscle fatigue and pain is a well documented side effect of statin drugs. Some of the side effects of statins can be found at website here:

The famous Merck and Schering-Plough cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin, is being investigated for fraud across the country for increasing the risk of certain forms of cancer by 64%. The drug is very good at lowering LDL cholesterol but in doing so it substantially increases the risk of some forms of cancer. There are numerous ongoing studies investigating the link between low LDL levels and the risk of developing cancer.

The other role of cholesterol in the body is the formation of bile salts in the liver which help digest food. Without this the food you consume wouldn’t be properly digested and assimilated in the body and you would wither away in starvation no matter how much you ate. Cholesterol also assists in the conversion of vitamin D from sunlight and in the assimilation of vitamin A and E.

Cholesterol also being the master steroid assists in the formation of sex hormones, testosterone, estrogen and progesterone without which our normal sexual development wouldn’t be possible.

It is sad that cholesterol has been touted as the single most devious villain in the fight against CHD by the vegetable oil industry and the pharmaceutical industry for obvious reasons (isn’t billions of dollars reason enough?). A further testimony to the pharmaceutical industry’s vested interest in selling statins to the general population is the latest recommendation to put children as young at 8 on statins:

Talk about expanding the market base. Time to buy some Pfizer and Merck shares, I say!

While I am not suggesting that we go all out in our intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, I do believe that anything (natural) taken in moderation won’t harm your body. If you do have high cholesterol it may be a symptom of some other underlying factor such as stress and treating it with statins so that your numbers look good on paper would do nothing to alleviate the real cause. So treat the cause and not the symptom. I believe the best way to combat CHD is by living healthy, eating healthy and staying happy. After following this lifestyle if your cholesterol numbers are still high then so be it. Trust your body in that it knows what’s right for you and messing with the natural pathways of your body with synthetic drugs might prove counter-effective in the long run. So the next time your doctor suggests cholesterol lowering medication, stop and ask: is it really necessary and can I do something about it with a change in my lifestyle?

1) Maciej Gasior, Michael A. Rogawski, and Adam L. Hartman, Neuroprotective and disease-modifying effects of the ketogenic diet, Behav Pharmacol. 2006 September; 17(5-6): 431–439.
2) Aneja A., Tierney E., Autism: The Role of Cholesterol in Treatment. International Review of Psychiatry, 2008 Apr 20(2):165-70)
3) Texas A&M University (2008, January 10). Surprise -- Cholesterol May Actually Pose Benefits. ScienceDaily.


  1. But does one do about clogged arteries (and heart attack and death) :) I don't think anyone says cholesterol should be zero. Everyone acknowledges good vs bad cholesterol! Surely body itself produces required cholesterol - it's the excess from food intake that everyone's worried about.

    True there are other contributing factors to heart disease but even after healthy life style if cholesterol is high, statins dissolve the extra from creating plague on artery wall which leads to heart attacks and premature death!

    Eating more chocolate may help!

    But then I am not doctor :)

  2. Researchers are finding out the real cause of plaque on the artery walls is inflammation of walls themselves as they are attacked by oxidative agents in the blood. Once the artery walls get microscopic damage from the inflammation, cholesterol merely acts as a band-aid to cover up the damaged site. So in essence cholesterol is just a symptom and not the real cause. Omega 3 and other antioxidants that can reduce this inflammation process are what are needed to stop this in the first place and not statins. Cholesterol is blamed for nothing. In fact researchers are even doubting the good vs bad cholesterol theory and believe the cause to be something called c-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood. I would think in the future CRP testing will be as critical as cholesterol testing is today and perhaps we won't even be testing for lipid cholesterol levels to asses the risk for CHD.

    Also the excess cholesterol from food intake that everyone is worried about has been shown to have an inverse correlation with lipid cholesterol i.e., when you get cholesterol from outside sources your body starts making less of it and so your lipid cholesterol levels actually go down which is what is really measured in the blood work that we do for cholesterol testing. So either way as long as you are eating saturated fats in moderation you are not as risk for CHD from your diet.

    And if your arteries are already clogged from plaque then make lifestyle changes to increase your good cholesterol, like exercising, eating high levels of omega-3's and anti-oxidants and let the HDL cholesterol do its job. Either way I dont see a need for statins unless you are at the brink of a stroke and are incapacitated due to age or some other factor to be unable to exercise and make other lifestyle changes. In such as case I suppose statins would be your last bet for survival.

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