Sterols are a group of lipids very important to human health, with over thirty being found in nature so far. The most recognized sterol is “cholesterol.” Cholesterol is a hard, waxy substance that melts at 149°C (300°F) and is made from excess calories that the body does not require. The more excess calories that are consumed, the more pressure the body is under to make cholesterol; and the more stress the body is under, the more cholesterol that is made.
There are benefits to having cholesterol in the body in the quantities that is normally required, making cholesterol quite necessary.
1) The body makes steroid hormones from cholesterol: corticosteroids, and the sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
2) Bile acids, vital to digestion, are derived from cholesterol.
3) It protects the skin, where it is converted to Vitamin D by the sun, and acts as a barrier against substances trying to enter or leave.
4) It acts as an antioxidant when the need arises.
5) Cholesterol in the brain and spinal cord accounts for about 25% of the body’s total.
The unique quality of cholesterol is that, even though the body can make it (producing about 800 mg. per day), it cannot break it down. It can only be removed from the body through feces in the form of bile acids. This removal is increased with the addition of fiber and water to the diet. If fiber is absent, up to 94% of the cholesterol and bile acids are reabsorbed and recycled. Water is vital in this process of removing fiber from the body. Fiber from oats, apples, beans, peas, and flax lower cholesterol levels, but wheat bran does not. Indiscriminate cholesterol-lowering programs have actually increased death rates because of suicide and cancer.
Drugs that lower cholesterol without reducing heart attacks or deaths prove that cholesterol is not the real issue. Even when subjects were placed on low-fat diets with cholesterol-lowering drugs, heart attacks actually increased twofold, and violent deaths including suicides, homocides, and accidents increased threefold. Over the last ninety years, cholesterol consumption has stayed relatively the same, yet CVD (cardiovascular disease) has skyrocketed. This indicates that other factors are more of a threat – such factors as the skyrocketing consumption of sugars, fats, additives, chemicals, and trans fatty acids. Low cholesterol levels may also indicate the risk of cancer. What seems to lead to high blood cholesterol is the lack of such nutrients as chromium, magnesium, Vitamin B3, and the omega 3 fatty acids needed to metabolize it. In addition, plant foods contain sterols. One is beta-sitosterol, which has proven to inhibit cholesterol absorption, partially offering some degree of protection against coronary artery disease.
Cholesterol prevents certain liquids from penetrating the body and keeps water from leaving the body too quickly. Thanks to cholesterol, only about 10-14 oz. of water leaves through evaporation. The bloodstream usually carries about 7 grams (1/2 ounce) of cholesterol along with triglycerides, phospholipids, carotene, Vitamin E, and proteins. These are all carried by two groups of plasma lipoproteins. One is called LDL (low density lipoproteins), which carries cholesterol and fats from foods and the liver to cells. It is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol. If levels become too high or if the cholesterol becomes rancid, bundles stick to the walls of the arteries, causing them to narrow. The other is called HDL (high density lipoprotein), often referred to as the “good” cholesterol, which carries cholesterol from the cells back to the liver, where it is changed to bile, excreted into the intestine and moved on into the stool. Feces is a major route of removing excess cholesterol from the body. This poses quite a problem during frequent bouts of constipation.
Cholesterol does not dissolve in water, which means it cannot move through the bloodstream by itself. The liver must provide long-chained essential fatty acids to surround the cholesterol molecule with protein. The resulting package is called a lipoprotein and is capable of moving through the bloodstream. But, in order to accomplish all of this, the body must be well hydrated. Drinking plenty of water each day and avoiding such metabolic hindrances as caffeine drinks is the only way to help move cholesterol on out of the body instead of slowing down the transportation to the point that cholesterol begins to adhere to arterial walls.
80% of cholesterol is utilized by the liver to help produce bile salts, which are stored in the gallbladder and used to aid in the digestion and absorption of dietary fats. For decades, doctors have used blood cholesterol levels as an indicator for cardiovascular risk. Total serum cholesterol level measures both LDL and HDL together, giving inaccurate impressions. Newer methods are proving to be more reliable indicators.
Cholesterol is found only in animal foods. Thus, the labelling of other products as “Cholesterol-free” is misleading. The most concentrated sources of cholesterol are found in organ meats and eggs. One egg has about 200 mg. of cholesterol, and daily requirements are about 300 mg. per day. Contrary to popular belief, there is little difference in the cholesterol content of meat, poultry, or fish. A food does not have to be high in saturated fat to be high in cholesterol since cholesterol is stored primarily in lean tissue.
It is not cholesterol alone that causes problems. It is the oxygenation of cholesterol that causes the damage. Oxygenation, or free radical development, is the process that changes the composition of this essential nutrient, turning it into a destructive compound. Oxidation of cholesterol is formed when it is exposed to air. This happens during the many stages of processing meat, milk, eggs, butter, and cheese products. Added to this is the means of processing – firing, smoking, curing, aging, and packaging all contribute further to the oxygenation of cholesterol-containing foods. Such fast foods as fried chicken, fish, hamburgers; as well as dried and packaged foods, are some of the greatest sources of free radicals.