What is Cholesterol and Why Does It Spike?

High cholesterol is a well-known leading risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease, but did you know we couldn’t live without cholesterol?.

Cholesterol is important for the human body. It is a precursor for many of our hormones and makes up a part of our cell walls1. We obtain cholesterol from our diet though most of our cholesterol is made by our liver in our body1,2.

You may have visited your doctor’s office and heard about “good” and “bad” cholesterol, but what exactly does this mean?

Your “bad” cholesterol is also known as LDL-C (LDL Cholesterol)1,2. LDL is a transport molecule that carries cholesterol from our liver to the rest of our body1,2. Higher LDL cholesterol has been associated with more cardiovascular events such as heart attack, stroke, and more1,2.

Your “good” cholesterol is also known as HDL-C (HDL Cholesterol). HDL is a transport molecule that carries cholesterol from our body back to our liver1,2. When higher amounts of cholesterol are brought back to the liver, the liver recognizes that our body has too much and in response, decreases its production2. Higher HDL cholesterol has been associated with less cardiovascular events1,2.

WHAT CAUSES CHOLESTEROL LEVELS TO SPIKE?

In order to understand this, it is important to know that in order for cholesterol to be used up by our body, it interacts with receptors on various tissues and organs and gets taken up from circulation2.

There are a few reasons why cholesterol levels may be elevated in the blood:

1) Genetic Predisposition

Cholesterol levels can be elevated due to a genetic condition called Familial Hypercholesterolemia1,2,3. This condition involves a defect in the cholesterol receptor3. As a result, the liver is not able to take up extra cholesterol. Consequently, the liver is not aware of the excess circulating levels of cholesterol in the blood. Thus, cholesterol keeps being produced by the liver and circulates at high levels in the body.

2) Diet High in Saturated Fat

Consuming too many saturated fats increases cholesterol levels in the blood1,2,3. In addition, when we consume these foods in excess, our body responds by decreasing the amounts of cholesterol receptors in the body so our organs are not taking up too much2. As a result, more cholesterol stays in our blood. Adjusting your diet to lower amounts of saturated fats found in processed foods and meats is a great first step in addressing this common cause of high cholesterol levels1,2,3.

3) Underlying Medical Condition

As we age, cholesterol receptors naturally become damaged2.
That being said, some conditions, such as diabetes, have been shown to further damage receptors even more2. Conditions that can increase your cholesterol levels include3:

             a) Hypothyroidism

             b) Chronic kidney disease

             c) Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

             d) HIV

             e) Diabetes

             f) Obesity

             g) Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and lupus.


As a result, if present, proper management of these conditions may be required in order to effectively manage your cholesterol levels.

4) Medications

Certain medications are known to increase cholesterol levels3. These include:

             a) “Water pills” also known as diuretics.

             b) Immunosuppressive drugs that are commonly used in autoimmune conditions.

             c) Steroids such as prednisone d) Retinoids that are used to treat acne.

             e) Antiarrhythmic medicines such as amiodarone.

             f) Medications used for HIV.

It is best to speak to a medical practitioner about what your best options are in these cases. Never stop medications without prior consultation with a medical practitioner.


There are many reasons why your cholesterol could be elevated, it is best to identify and discuss your risks with your naturopathic or medical doctor. Ultimately, our bodies need cholesterol but persistently high levels of cholesterol are associated with cardiovascular concerns such as heart attacks, strokes and more. It is important to maintain optimal levels of cholesterol levels for optimal health.

References

1. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. What is cholesterol and how does arteriosclerosis develop? 2013 Aug 14 [Updated 2017 Sep 7]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279327/?report=classic

2. Pizzorno, J., Murray, M. Textbook of natural medicine. 2013. 4th edition. Atherosclerosis. 1227-1229.

3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. High Blood Cholesterol. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/high-blood-cholesterol