Why Cholesterol is Good for You

Cholesterol

What comes to mind when you hear the word cholesterol? High blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, Cheerios commercials… Overall it’s a pretty negative connotation, right?

I’m here to change your mind about this misunderstood molecule because cholesterol isn’t the villain we’ve made it out to be. It’s really quite the hero, actually. A hero who, in trying to save someone, accidentally causes a big mess.  You know, rescues the damsel, but knocks over a building in the process. Whoops.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about how cholesterol can be a problem, let’s talk about how awesome and essential it is to our health. 

Reason #1 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Cell Membranes

Let’s get something straight: cholesterol can’t be “bad” because it literally makes us who we are. As one of the building blocks of the lipid bilayer that composes our cell membranes, it provides structural integrity and allows are cells to communicate with one another, which keeps our bodies functioning properly. Healthy cell membranes allow necessary substances in, while keeping harmful substances out, and also exports cellular wastes. Mess with this, and our body’s finally-tuned homeostasis goes haywire.

Reason #2 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Healthy Hormones

Hormones are responsible for everything from metabolism, stress response, reproduction, and blood sugar regulation, to name a few. They move throughout the body and send messages to our cells that regulate our complex body systems. To say that hormones are important is an understatement.

Steroid hormones– such as testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol– are synthesized from It. When it is limited, sometimes our body has to prioritize which hormones to produce with its limited resources. Since staying alive is more important than reproducing, it’s often the sex hormones that are compromised. Think PMS, irregular menstrual cycles, low libido, and so on. It is especially crucial during times of stress when our body has to boost cortisol production.

Reason #3 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Digestion

Since fat and water don’t mix, our bodies have to emulsify the fats we eat in order to digest and utilize them. That’s where bile comes in. And where does bile come from? You guessed it– cholesterol!

Produced by the gallbladder, bile breaks down large globules of fat into a suspension of smaller globules that can be absorbed during digestion. When the bile function is inadequate, it can lead to an upset stomach, intestinal irritation, greasy stools, diarrhea, and gas. Gross!

Proper fat digestion is also crucial for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Vitamin D deficiencies can cause a range of symptoms from depression, fatigue, muscle weakness, and poor immunity.

Reason #4 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Brain Health

As babies grow in the womb, they require large amounts of it for proper brain and eye development. Breast milk contains high levels of it to continue this development after the baby is born. As adults, about 25% of the body is used by the brain. Needless to say, our brains are cholesterol-dependent. Myelin, a substance that forms a protective layer around our nerve cells and nerve fibers, is composed of it. It is also key in synapse formation, allowing brain cells to communicate with each other and form memories. Reduce cholesterol levels too much, and you risk memory loss and learning problems.

Reason #5 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Healing

When the body needs some healing help, the liver sends cholesterol to the site to get to work. It is transported by low-density lipoproteins, commonly known as LDL. This so-called “bad” cholesterol is really just the response to something that irritates and inflames the body. Healing damaged cells and the formation of new cells requires plenty of it because, as we learned in Reason #1, cell membranes are made from it! LDL doesn’t just heal cells, it helps fight infection since immune cells need it to function properly. After injuries, surgery, or during illness, blood cholesterol levels will rise as the body tries to get well again.

After it has healed a damaged area, it gets shuttled back to the liver by high-density lipoproteins– HDL – the so-called “good” cholesterol because it brings cholesterol back to the liver. But really, both types play a necessary role in our overall health.

I hope now you can see how vital cholesterol is.

So vital, our cells have mechanisms to manufacture the cholesterol needed by our bodies when we don’t get enough from our diets. Therefore, we don’t generally have to worry about its levels getting too low, except during times of stress or sickness when our body is especially taxed. This can be a good time to supplement with extra dietary– so eat those eggs! Medications like statin drugs can actually make us more prone to infections, for all the reasons we just discussed.

Now, this doesn’t mean that having elevated cholesterol levels is a good thing. Not because it is damaging to the body, but because high levels are indicative of a bigger problem: systemic inflammation. As we expose ourselves to a slew of chemicals and consume inflammatory foods (sugar, gluten, trans fats, artificial ingredients, etc), its levels rise in response. We end up blaming it for causing the problems just because it’s been found at the scene of the crime. But it itself isn’t to blame.

healthy-breakfast-with-bananas-and-eggs-4114114What do we do to lower cholesterol levels?

Lowering intake of dietary won’t actually do much to lower blood cholesterol levels– if the body needs more, it will simply make more– nor will eating rich foods do much to raise its levels.

Besides, it’s not about lowering cholesterol directly, it’s about reducing the intake of those foods that cause inflammation, and thus the need for elevated cholesterol levels. The main culprit is the over-consumption of sugar and carbohydrates. Sugars and starches elevate blood sugar levels, which over time can lead to metabolic syndrome, hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, and type II diabetes. When your body can’t properly shuttle glucose to the cells or the liver for storage, it roams free in the bloodstream, irritating blood vessel walls. It tries to heal the damage over and over and over again, therefore its levels remain high.

The bottom line: cholesterol is good!

High cholesterol levels mean it’s time to make some dietary changes, and not by avoiding foods that contain healthy fats  (let’s be clear– hydrogenated/trans fats should be completely avoided). Instead, it’s important to reduce intake of sugars, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, while also making sure to stay active and engaging in some stress-reducing techniques.

 

Why Salt is Good for You

Salt is Good for You

Did you ditch salt in your efforts to improve health? It’s time to reconsider that. Here are some of the reasons why Salt is good for you

 

Salt is good for you!

When someone decides they are going to start “eating healthy” they tend to ditch the typical diet villains–those foods that mainstream diet dogma has deemed “bad”– fat, sugar, and salt. But just like it’s a bad idea to avoid all fat, not all salt is the same and it shouldn’t be thrown out entirely. Salt can be a beneficial addition to your diet.

Before I dive into why salt is good for you, I want to clarify what kind of salt I’m talking about.

I am not talking about regular table salt– you know, the kind that comes in a blue can with a girl holding an umbrella. That stuff is highly processed, usually bleached, often contaminated, and is lacking the trace minerals your body needs*. This refined sodium chloride is what your doctor really wants you to avoid. And so do I!

Salt is more than just sodium. It’s a mineral-rich supplement that was once so valuable it was used as currency. The salt you should be using– the kind that is beneficial to your health– is as unrefined as possible. My personal favorite is Redmond Real Salt, but there are plenty of excellent unrefined sea salts on the market.

So why salt is good for you?

Salt keeps you hydrated.

That’s right– we need water and salt to stay hydrated.

Hydration is a delicate balance between the amount of water contained within cell walls (intracellular fluid), and the amount of water outside of them (extracellular fluid). This balance is maintained via sodium-potassium pumps in the cell membranes. Both of these minerals are essential, and they are found in unrefined salts (as well as some fresh foods). You can drink all the water in the world, but without salt, your body wouldn’t be able to utilize that water. In fact, you’d become even more dehydrated since all that water would flush out of your system, taking what little mineral reserves you have left along with it (remember the horror stories of frat boys being forced to drink gallons of water and essentially “drowning” in their own bodies?).

When you sweat excessively or get food poisoning, you’re told to replenish your electrolytes so you don’t get dehydrated. Rather than guzzle Gatorade, you could just drink a glass of saltwater, because guess what? Electrolytes are salts. They are the essential minerals needed for a slew of important bodily functions.

Again, this isn’t advocating for the consumption of high-sodium table salt or processed foods. Sodium-free salt substitutes are also problematic, since consuming them can result in excess potassium and insufficient sodium, which disrupts Intra/extracellular hydration. You should be eating foods that are as close to how they are found in nature as possible, and that includes salt.

mason-jar-filled-with-salt-2320244-3Salt contains essential minerals.

Along with sodium and potassium, unrefined salts contain other important minerals such as chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, sulfur, and so on (check out Redmond Real Salt’s Elemental Analysis to see for yourself). I could write a book on all the roles these minerals play in your body, from nerve conduction to bone remodeling, muscle contraction, digestion, heart health, and energy production. Instead, here’s a brief rundown:

Calcium: development and maintenance of bones and teeth; muscle contraction; heart function; nerve transmission; enzyme activity; and acid-base balance.

Chloride: hydration/fluid balance (in conjunction with sodium and water); stomach acid production; and acid-base balance.

Magnesium: muscle relaxation, including the muscles of the digestive tract and blood vessels; enzyme activity; DNA production and function; nutrient transfer across cell membranes; and ATP (energy) production.

Phosphorous: bone and teeth health; energy production and exchange; tissue growth and repair (protein synthesis); cell membranes; kidney function; acid-base balance; muscle contraction; nerve conduction; and DNA production and function.

Potassium: hydration/fluid balance; acid-base balance; blood pressure regulation; nerve conduction; muscle contraction; heartbeat regulation; protein synthesis; and carbohydrate metabolism.

Sodium: hydration/fluid balance; acid-base balance; muscle contraction; nerve conduction; stomach acid production; and protein transport.

Sulfur: enzymatic reactions; protein synthesis; production of collagen and keratin; insulin production and carbohydrate metabolism; and cellular respiration.

As you can see, these minerals play many critical roles in the body. Rather than thinking of salt solely as a seasoning, start thinking of it as your daily mineral supplement. It does so much more than just add flavor to food. It provides essential minerals that maintain your body’s health and homeostasis. So it is proved that salt is good for you!

How much salt should you consume?

There’s no definitive answer here*. While high levels of sodium have been linked to high blood pressure and other issues, it appears that the real concern is when sodium and potassium levels are out of balance. A standard American diet of processed foods is high in sodium while being deficient in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and so on. Excess sodium is excreted through the urine and sweat, but this can put a strain on the kidneys over time, especially if you’re not drinking enough water (another epidemic of our modern society).

Once again, salt is good for you! it’s not salt that is inherently the problem, it’s a highly-processed diet. Pure sodium chloride (table salt) would not have been consumed before pre-industrial times. When eating a natural, fresh diet of meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats, high sodium levels are rarely a concern. Unrefined sea salt would not be a burden, it would be a nutritional boon for the essential minerals it provides.

Here are my suggestions:

  • Avoid processed foods, which are high in sodium and lacking in nutrients.
  • Eat plenty of fresh vegetables (leafy greens, avocados, potatoes with skin, squash, mushrooms, bananas, and papaya are especially rich in potassium).
  • Use unrefined sea salt, which contains both sodium and potassium (along with many other essential trace minerals), to season your food.
  • Drink lots of water (half your body weight in ounces, ex: 150 lbs = 75 oz water per day) and for every 8 oz of a diuretic beverage you drink (coffee, tea, etc.) add an additional 12 oz water to replace the lost fluids. Drink more if you live in a very hot/dry climate or if you sweat a lot.

The bottom line: Don’t fear salt!  Salt is good for you! Not all salt is created equal, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you have more questions about why salt is good for you, ask in the comments!

*Note about iodine: Most table salt is iodized, meaning it’s been mixed with iodine, another essential nutrient. Iodine deficiency is common in Americans (and other Western societies), which can result in thyroid dysfunction and goiter. Rather than relying on processed table salt for iodine, be sure to include plenty of quality seafood and sea vegetables in your diet. I like to sprinkle these kelp granules on my food.

**Note for ketogenic diets: Adequate salt consumption is especially important when in a state of ketosis (when ketones are created as fuel for the body). When in ketosis, your body excretes more sodium in the urine, which means you may need to replenish your sodium levels more often and salt is good for you in your keto diet.