Cholesterol can be a confusing. It’s a hot topic in media and books–and with good reason.  The Center For Disease Control estimates that 1 in 3 adults have high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol.   That’s a big red flag in the healthcare field as high cholesterol is linked with heart disease and increased risk of stroke.

What is cholesterol?

First, let’s be clear–cholesterol is essential to life. A fatty substance that is made in the liver, cholesterol is vital for proper brain and nerve functioning  and the proper creation of sex and adrenal hormones.  Cholesterol is used to make vitamin D and bile, which breaks down other fats–and it is found in every cell of our body.  So if your mindset has been to kill or get rid of cholesterol, drop it.  We need it to survive, we just need to regulate it.

Many people with elevated cholesterol have no physical complaints, but it is in the long run that we see problems.  Presently, elevated cholesterol is linked to arteriosclerosis, heart disease, hormone regulation problems, and many forms of cancer.  Managing cholesterol is a maintenance part of health rather than waiting for the pendulum to swing too far.

Cholesterol is carried by the blood  to whereever it is needed. LDL (bad or lousy), or low-density lipoproteins, transport the cholesterol through the blood and HDL (happy or good)  carry the excess back to the liver for breakdown and removal from the system.

Look at it this way–if there is too much LDL for the HDL to clean up, the cholesterol settles in the arteries and veins building a plaque.  Plaque build up can lead to slowed circulation of Qi, Blood and Fluids that can lead to damage.  Things get thick and sticky in your vessels–not a good thing.

Dietary cholesterol vs blood serum cholesterol

Note here that dietary cholesterol (what you read on food packages) refers to the amount of cholesterol in a given food and is not the same thing as blood serum cholesterol.  Blood serum cholesterol is the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood at the time your test is taken. An overall blood serum cholesterol level of of 200-239 is currently considered boardline and anything above 240 is considered high risk.  Babies are born with about 70-80 mg/dl of cholesterol and teens and healthy adults usually have 150-180 mg/dl–which is where most of the rest of world’s populace actually hang out.  It’s America and the industrialized nations where we see that 1 and 3 adults have cholesterol above 240–ouch.

Elevated cholesterol can be controlled and cured, the trick is really understanding ratios between the LDL and HDL and balancing the two. Current recommendations from the American Heart Association mark the target goal as a cholesterol ratio of 3.5 to 1.   A higher ratio indicates greater risk of disease. Recommended levels of HDL to protect against heart disease are 60-68 mg/dl., and an HDL reading under 35 mg/dl. is considered risky even if your overall cholesterol is low.  Basically, you want the LDL to be low and HDL to be up.  Enough on the western science end, let’s look to the east.

What causes elevated cholesterol?

Poor nutritional habits and heredity.  Mostly–poor nutritional habits.  It is true that there are some genetic propensities, but even in these cases, often there is much room for improvement in diet.  Even if you have inherited a tendency for elevated cholesterol from mom or dad, it is also likely (in my experience) that you are carrying forward some of their habits that worsen cholesterol conditions, such as over indulgence potato chips and ice cream.

Life habits and working conditions that create excess stress can be contributing factors to the bodies ability to adequately regulate cholesterol. The habit may include binge eating or eating at late hours, lots of greasy refined foods, etc. It might be that you handle stress poorly and lack appropriate exercise and rest which will weaken the body overall–again, meaning you won’t be able to properly regulate cholesterol movement.

Elevated cholesterol from a Chinese medicine perspective

Elevated cholesterol is seen as a pattern of excess damp and accumulation–there is too much in the system.  That excess will generate heat,  and creates more stagnation and agitation.  The Liver and Gall Bladder become congested and create heat and dampness.  Things get thick, hot,  sticky and gooey which will eventually overflow into other systems like the Heart. This overflow will generate heat upsetting the Heart, often raising the blood pressure.  The pulse indicates this as a full, thick pulse or ropey pulse especially in the blood level of the pulse.  In some cases you can actually see the pulse throbbing in the wrist.  We literally call it Blood Thick.

Primary treatment is to clear heat, transform dampness and phlegm in Gall Bladder and Liver and to promote free flow of Qi, Blood, fluids and bile. What?  You don’t have a Gall Bladder anymore?  You still have the entire Gall Bladder meridian and accessible points (which are often tender) though the system will be compromised because the physical organ is gone.   Even without your Gall Bladder we can still treat the energetic and functional properties for which it was responsible.  In the mind of Chinese medicine practitioners any missing organ, means that organ, channel system and element is weak or compromised.

A few tips to lower cholesterol

Cholesterol is one of the most controllable diseases in our society.  It is a disease of “abundance” that has come about from excess rich and fatty foods in the diet.  A rich man’s disease that we don’t see in those who eat mostly vegetables, whole grains (I mean the real whole grain, endosperm and all) and lentils and legumes.  Cholesterol issues come from our habits–so let’s look at some new ‘habits’ that you can incorporate to positively influence your cholesterol.  Added bonus–most clients that eat to lower their cholesterol loose weight and a numerous other physical complaints clear up.

A few words of caution.  There are many diets, fads, products and confusing information circulation about what to eat and what not to eat.  My approach to nutrition is one of moderation and using real, whole and seasonal foods.   There isn’t one right plan, rather, our foods need to be varied and adaptable, just as our lives change.  When there is illness, the diet needs to be specifically modified to treat the condition.  In the case of lowering cholesterol, many of my recommendations directly knock heads with several current trends and fads–specifically, “not eating carbohydrates” and high protein diets like the Paleo.   Complex carbohydrates in the form of lentils/legumes, unrefined or unprocessed grains, and roots are essential to lowering cholesterol, as is reducing heavy animal proteins.  I will try to be as clear as possible–so read on.

Eat foods that specifically lower cholesterol

  • Apple Pectin-Pectin shines when it comes to making jelly and binding to excess cholesterol floating in the blood stream.  An insoluable fiber, pectin increases healthy gut bacteria and stabilizes the blood sugar.  Apple pectin is found in the skin of apples so peeling apples or using juice, won’t do the trick.  You need to eat the whole apple (organic, please–want to avoid those chemicals and ‘food grade’ waxes).  An apple a day...  Pectin is also found in carrots, beans, citrus fruits, pears and bananas.
  • Mushrooms–Shittake and reishi to be specific.
  • Celery–Cools heat and clears.
  • Beets–Beautiful blood cleaners, loves the Liver and Heart.
  • Eggplant–You may choose to avoid eggplant if you have arthritic conditions.
  • Garlic and onions-Pungents move the blood.  Avoid the too many of the hotter pungents if you have heat patterns.
  • Peppers–Especially hot and chili peppers prevent blood clots and reduce the risk of stroke. Use with caution if you are very hot!
  • Dandelion root–So Liver clearing and detoxifying.
  • Eat whole grains
  • Jerusalem artichoke–Just a weird food than can add variety to your diet.  Seriously, though, Jerusalem artichokes are lovely and delish.
  • Alfalfa sprouts–Very clearing, high in protein so an excellent addition for those of you who need to trim animal protein.
  • Lentils and legumes–Don’t you dare back away from these guys because you aren’t eating carbohydrates.  Lentils and legumes are fabulous at regulating cholesterol, increasing fiber, providing a vegetarian source of protein and providing stabilized, enduring strength and blood sugar regulation.
  • Avocados, Flaxseeds & Cocoa butter-Happy fat that regulates the LDL and HDL relationship.
  • Eat nuts— Limit nuts and seeds to a small handful at time.
  • Brewer’s yeast–High protein and B vitamins too!
  • Royal jelly and honey–Bee’s wonders.
  • Saffron and tumeric–Members of the warm pungents, these guys specifically target cholesterol balance.
  • Red yeast rice–Hóng qū mǐ, red rice koji, akakoji, fermented red rice or ang-kak, it’s all red yeast rice, has been used for centuries by the Asian cultures to help with lowering cholesterol. The Japanese date this koji back to 300 BC.  True that they didn’t have cholesterol test centuries ago–but they did have pulse assessment and elevated cholesterol can be clearly picked out by trained pulse practitioners.  This beautiful purple/red rice acquires its name and coloring from being fermented with mold Monascus purpureus.  Be sure to look for a quality product.  Due to its popularity producers have started cutting corners and using chemical dyes and colorings to boost sales.

Increase your fiber intake-Fiber, fiber, fiber…what doesn’t it help with?  On the average, Americans eat 1/2 the amount of fiber that they should.  A few simple dietary shifts can do wonders in your body. To find out more about high fiber foods and their benefits check out Fabulous Fiber.

Eat vegetables–Increasing vegetables overall will definitely help. Aim for half of your plate to be vegetables. Then divide the other half 50/50 with a whole grain or starchy vegetable and protein like lentils or legumes.  Green foods heal and clear the Liver of stagnation and congestion…the more green in your diet the merrier.  How about some nettles?

Drink green tea-Drink tea specially helps to cut down heat and congestion in the system, among other benefits. It clears and calms the mind.  If you settle down and enjoy it, you get the added benefit of relieving stress.

Eat meat as a condiment –Animal proteins, are building and have specific health properties, however, we often eat too many, especially when you are trying to lower cholesterol.  Trim back to 3-5 oz a day, and eat a variety, especially of the lean meats like turkey and sustainable fishes, or just cut them out for a while.

Down with dairy–Yes, like all other foods dairy can be good for you, but not if you are trying to regulate cholesterol.  Most of our dietary cholesterol comes from excess meat and dairy so take a step back and look at how much you are taking in.  Dairy is particularly damp, phlegm and congesting, making everything thick and gooey.  How much dairy do you need?  Technically?  None–it isn’t required for life at all.  Perhaps cutting it out or way back for a while is ideal.  If you do partake, use clear sources free of hormones and antibiotics and use some of the fermented forms like dairy kefir and yogurt. Try sheep or goat dairy which are absorbed by the body better.

Reduce stress-Times of sustained or excess stress can lead to elevated cholesterol levels.  The body is trying to buffer and protect itself, as it should.  It’s just when this goes on, and/or there are other factors that may raise your risk, such as eating high fatty foods and skipping out on exercise because you are ‘too stressed.’  Take a little time to create a tool box of habits to help you get through stressful times. Go for a walk, journal, get into the sun, exercise, sing, dance, treat yourself to a beautiful cup of green tea, and most importantly–meditate.

Avoid cholesterol culprits and use healthy fats–Watch out for foods that specifically increase cholesterol.  You aren’t going to like part of this list…

  • Coffee–hot, damp and oily
  • Alcohol–very heating and too much sugar,
  • Sugar and processed and refined foods
  • Saturated fats (heavy meats, palm kernal and coconut oils).  Opt for cold pressed olive oil in cooking.
  • Cut out margarine and butter substitutes, and limit butter intake.
  • Avoid chemicals, including ‘sugar substitutes’, non dairy creamers and artificial foods.

Add in spirulina and fresh vegetable juices-Spirulina is an amazing micro algae.  Packed with vitamins and minerals it cleanses and detoxifies the blood and regulates blood sugar. Studies are showing that daily use of spirulina will lower cholesterol.  Wheat and barley grass are wonderful and add in carrot, celery, kale and other fresh veggie juices.

Take physical responsibility for your health-“Know thyself.” It’s one of the main rules of living well.  Knowing if there is a family predisposition to high cholesterol is helpful information–but not necessarily a diagnosis.  Take a good look at life and dietary habits that you may mimic that may increase your cholesterol risks.  Identify where you can do better: is it exercise, cutting out the potato chips and cookies, finding joy?  Where can you improve?

Be well,

April