Cholesterol, Mental Health and Myths
Updated: Jan 28
*if you were misdirected and are looking for "The Cupboard," it's here.
I've had a ton of meetings lately. Event planning, collaboration, employee wellness, community wellness. I am a little meeting-ed out, lol, but there are so many more coming and I'm looking forward to them anyway.
Something I have found myself asking a few times, at points where frustration comes up in these meetings is: "Why am I still telling people that it is mainly sugar that is responsible for "bad" cholesterol and that good, unrefined fats actually help keep cholesterol levels healthy?"
Why? Why do I even have to say that anymore? It's been decades.
It is a deep frustration I have and it goes beyond just cholesterol. Apart from the massive impact that a correct single fact like this can have on our collective health, this ongoing misconception is a drop in the bucket. There are so many more basic cause and effects out there, where the knowledge has been skewed way beyond us knowing the truth (usually perpetrated by someone selling something.) It sometimes feels like we will never catch up. Some days it makes me want to pull my hair out and burn boxes of all the low-fat processed/packaged non-foods available on grocery store shelves everywhere. I have brief moments where I want give up on all us and run into the sunset - so I don't have to feel this profound frustration anymore. When something is frustrating for decades, it gets to be a bit much. Fortunately I'd never be able to run fast enough to actually enter the sunset, so I haven't bothered trying.
Here's a little fun physiology for you:
Sugar raises insulin levels - insulin raises blood pressure, appetite, triglycerides and Type B (bad kind of) LDL. It is becoming commonly believed, for good reason, that high levels of circulating insulin may cause microvascular damage to capillary walls in kidneys, which increases blood pressure.
Think about that.
What always comes after Liptor, a popular cholesterol medication?
Why, Lasix, a popular Blood Pressure medication is next, of course!
(and don't even get me started on the varied levels of what qualifies as "high cholesterol" from country to country, cause then I'll get really mad.)
So why all the 'confusion' about fats for so long? Why all the sugar everywhere in everything?
Back in the 80s we started taking the skin off the chicken and holding the Mayo. To compensate for the lack of flavour and nutrients our bodies really needed from the fat, we poured on the ketchup (sugar.)
Why? Someone discovered cholesterol under a microscope shortly before this happened. They decided that since cholesterol was made from fats, the problem underlying 'high cholesterol' must be too many fats in our diet. That is 'parking lot' science at best. No context, no examination of cause and effect in the body, nothing. Pure speculation, and we bought it.
"You measure what you can see, and you inevitably decide that what you can see is what matters. Cholesterol is a classic example. It’s the first factor related to heart disease that we could measure. So, the science got obsessed with cholesterol, and cholesterol became the cause of heart disease, and dietary cholesterol was what you had to eliminate. This is parking lot science. It’s based on the parable of a man who loses his key in a parking lot at night. He spends all his time looking for it under the lights even though he knows that’s not where he lost it, because that’s where he can see best." Michael Pollan
That was the turning point for our collective health, that was when we started down this destructive path towards obesity, diabetes and heart disease. These issues are actually all sugar based. They are not fat based.
I should say though, that all the REFINED fats that we consume DO make all these things much worse - for so many reasons that I won't go into today. This would get way too long.
On top of this, we have been misguided by a non-steward of health, by a giant false assumption adopted and perpetuated by our current health care model. This misguided and oh-so-wrong assumption came into play right around the time that we threw life giving raw fats out the diet window, along with the cholesterol bath water. What happened is a tragedy of epic proportions. And, as we all know, once you build a billion dollar industry around a lie, it's reeeeeally hard to ever get at the foundation of it, never mind dissolve it.
This faulty assumption I am talking about has never been said better than the way Anne Marie Colburn said it. (She said it in the 80's.) In short, she said that we have adopted a very detrimental view of our bodies. We did that by making the assumption that symptoms such as headaches, tummy aches, acne, PMS, stiff necks, achey joints, frequent colds and flus, bloating, indigestion, etc, etc, are "an erroneous reaction on the body's part to normal stimuli."
Ponder that for a moment please.
Instead of the handy language that our body has always had to tell us when it is not getting what it needs and/or that we are putting something in it that is damaging us, we have denied that language's very existence, never mind validity. We think anything the body says is crazy talk and it needs to be shut up with a medication or a supplement.
This manifests in so many ways.
"I have a headache, my stupid body just won't ever let me have a good day" said the woman that drinks too much coffee, sits at a computer all day and doesn't exercise or do yoga.
"No," said the nutritional therapist, "you stimulate your adrenals too much with caffeine. That caffeine also neutralizes your stomach acid, leaving it unable to knock the charge off the few minerals you actually eat - this means they can't be absorbed properly into your body. Now you don't have a proper balance of calcium and magnesium. To make it worse you are hunched over all day, putting pressure on your neck and creating tension - and a headache. And now your body doesn't have the resources to relax those muscles because it doesn't have the electrolytes and minerals (see stomach comment above) needed to do so - because all that coffee made sure you don't have them."
Or this one, I hear this all the time:
"I have a stomach of steel, I can eat anything!" said the guy on cholesterol and blood pressure meds. (eye roll emoji here pls)
"No. No you don't" says the nutritionist, "You have a stomach deficient in digestive juices that is not breaking down protein properly. You have a liver that is not producing enough bile to emulsify the fats that you need to maintain normal cholesterol. You have a diet deficient in essential fatty acids and other nutrients to help your HPA axis regulate your stress response properly - this keeps your adrenals too active and they end up actually helping keep your blood pressure high. You're drinking too much alcohol and eating too much sugar, which keeps insulin pumping through your blood. This makes your cholesterol even higher and stresses out your liver even more. When the liver is struggling it forces your kidneys to have to work harder at things that they are not even supposed to have to do. Obviously this makes it more difficult for them to also keep your blood pressure stable - because they certainly aren't getting much help from your adrenals."
Man, it feels good to write that down.
Here's another one, a little more of a hot topic right now.
"I have anxiety, there is something wrong with me, I have to shut this down with chemicals, so I can cope"
"Unlikely." said the nutritionist. "You probably have some kind of HPA axis trigger in your past that you have not dealt with and the smallest little trigger in present time sets off your alarm response in real time - reacting as if it is the same degree of trauma from the past. When this happens, you feel anxiety from the hormones released in a stress response brought on by ghosts of traumas past. It doesn't mean your body is broken. It doesn't mean your brain is broken or that your emotions are broken. It means your story was broken somewhere and after years of reliving it over and over, consciously and unconsciously, your body just can't cope with that kind of re-membering of the trauma anymore. It means your HPA axis has some dysregulation, that happened because your past keeps hurting it, it's exhausted. You need emotional healing to undo the cycle and you need nutritional support while you do that, so that you can make the happy hormones needed to counter balance these things while you heal. Mindfulness and CBT could help you cope while you heal - 'cause it always gets worse before you get better. And yes, maybe you need the medication for extreme situations, if the trauma is bad, but it should be a means to an end to help you from point A(wful) to point B(etter.)"
(Or. With teenagers. Your microbiome needs some help and you're on your phone too much so you're addicted to dopamine, you need to stop that.)
And then in an annoying way, the nutritionist keeps going. "The reason you still have it is because as this kind of past trauma ghosting continues, your para-sympathetic nervous system also suffers. It's the part of your nervous system that is supposed to put the brakes on the stress response, once the threat has passed, (or once you consciously become aware that it is not real.) It starts to get tired and then has a harder time putting the brakes on and you end up crashing. If you don't ever get the breaks fixed (strengthen the para-sympathetic nervous system and repair the HPA Axis) then you keep crashing over and over. Unfortunately no one can take your license to drive your body away or force you into the repair shop unless you start to hurt other people with your faulty breaks. And even then, there's a lot of the unhelpful kind of tolerance out there for people with anxiety. I've seen it. I have seen mental health advocates with the best hearts and intentions that are so attached and invested in their 'mental illness' that it becomes a part of their very identity, you couldn't talk to them about essential fatty acids, self-care, healing the past and the microbiome if you offered them a million dollars. It is really not fair that it's turned out that way. People should be offered options, they should at least be aware of them. Instead, we have created a disempowering culture that coddles mental illness instead of at least offering to actually fix it. It's a terrible injustice to those that suffer that don't need to.
Sometimes all the things I mention don't help, I get that. Sometimes it's something else, but SOSOSO often, it is these things. It's not fair that it is not being offered and not fair that these mind sets are not being gently and kindly challenged. (See my blog on "How Mental Health Isolated Itself" if you want to know more.)
And then, almost as if possessed, the annoying nutritional therapist is STILL talking: "If you also have an impaired microbiome then it gets worse - your 'gut' ends up sending mixed or inappropriate signals, via the gut-brain axis, to your brain, telling you to feel things that are not real. Apart for these little critters that send signals, 90% of your serotonin is made in your gut. There is a very real, firm and fundamental case for gut health and mental health. If you're microbiome has been damaged by lots of antibiotics and you eat a typical western diet you are at a huge disadvantage. You have no back up, anything could throw you off. You probably also had two cups of coffee an hour before the anxiety hits, and a chocolate croissant which means you also have a rise in blood sugar - which sends your body into a homeostasis panic to bring the levels down so you don't die. To top it all of nicely, since you didn't have any protein or essential fatty acids for breakfast, you do not have the building blocks for serotonin or dopamine to off set the awful emotions created by hormones that should not even be in your blood stream - except caffeine and sugar put them there."
"And again, these panic hormones could also be courtesy of ghosts of traumas past (where a memory is stuck in your amygdala) or a weakened digestive system, combined with HPA dysregulation. Or those feelings could literally just be from elevated blood sugar and adrenaline released by the caffeine and croissant you consumed in the morning. OR. All of the above, all at once. The worst kind of party."
"You're totally screwed, and you likely did it to yourself - but you don't know that because we have normalized all kinds of crap that makes us feel like crap every day - so you blame the minor trigger (spouse, child, co-worker, bad drivers) that did almost nothing. It's everyone else, not you, not 2 cups of coffee, not 9 teaspoons of sugar in that coke, and certainly not the scary thing that happened with that person or that accident 20 years ago. It's your "stupid body" that is broken, not the choices you are making."
Sigh. I am frustrated. You can feel it, I know. But I won't actually give up because, based on what I have seen in my office, when someone is ready to hear it, ready to heal it, these things change VERY quickly. And, to be clear, I never have an issue if someone has talked it out thoroughly with their doctor and they know that starting with meds, while they fix the other stuff, is the right way to go. I'd never judge that. They are in my office, they want to fix the real stuff, I will help them anyway I can. Meds can be very helpful in the right place for the right reason. It usually works and, to be honest, I quite like having their MD's participation in the process. I don't know anything about medications, it's way out of my scope, cooperating with the prescribing physician is pretty great.
When I say these transformations happen quickly I mean that it can be a few weeks, a few months or a year. Depends how many decades you have spent building the mess into it's current state.
In general, this is what it looks like:
Teenagers start feeling better in a few weeks.
20 somethings, a couple months.
30 somethings, 6 months.
40 somethings, a year.
At 40, which is where it really all starts going down the toilet, a year for the mending isn't that bad. Given the number of years (20-30 years, depending) that a 40 something has been building up the mess, 1 year to invest in recovery of a better life is not that much. There is more work to do, here and there, after that, but there is ALWAYS substantial recover in that time frame. What's a year compared to all the aches and pains and medications you will get to enjoy when you retire instead?
So. While there are always some exceptions, such as injury and extreme life situations, here's the fact sheet for you. And while I know that Srikumar Rao would not encourage me to call something bad or good, I'm gonna do it anyway. lol.
Complaining about back pain and doing nothing except taking painkillers?
Getting therapy and learning how to strengthen your core muscles so your back doesn't hurt anymore? AND - so you don't lose your squat before you no longer need to be able to sit down to poop on a toilet?
Deluding yourself into thinking you have a stomach of steel and you're body just doesn't know what it's doing, but you are on medications for 2 or 3 basic body functions for homeostasis?
Repairing your digestive system and making a few dietary adjustments, so that you can truly know if there is really a systemic problem or if it is just your life choices have created the need for medications?
A long time ago we put our health in the hands of food marketers that used any form of parking lot science they could get their hands on, to manipulate us. It made us sick, physically and mentally and emotionally. It happened. Too late. Can't change it.
We need to get over it and simply ask ourselves, okay, what do we do now? We need to relocate our problem. We need to take the truth with us and build a new industry on a different foundation. (this is already happening everywhere, btw) You'll never effectively crush the foundation of an industry that has billions of dollars covering it. So just ignore it. What I resist persists, and all that.
So many people have wasted so much energy and so many words trying to expose and take something down that has an iron fortress around it. Forget the food industry. Forget the lies. You'll never get at them. Let it go. Who cares anymore? Their glory days are over. You'll never win if you feel a vengeful need to take them down. Find the truth instead, build something else, somewhere else. They will come.
Every. Single. Dollar. You. Put. Down is a vote. It's a vote for the food you want to have access too. It's a vote for who you want to grow your food. It's a vote for the products you want available and who you want to make them. It's a vote to the collective about the services you want available. It's a vote for the kind of health care you want. It's a vote for the world you want to live in.
We have all the power. Not the government. Not 'big sugar.' Not 'big tobacco.' Not even 'Big Pharma.' And definitely not 'nestle bottled water' or anything you've signed a petition against that has the illusion of being big and powerful. It's an illusion.
Do you know what the refined and packaged food industry actually is? It is the most fragile, vulnerable industry in the world. Why? Because when you decide to chose your health and happiness above all else, it crumbles. Like Babel.
When you stop buying and thereby stop voting, for what they sell, they come tumbling down. There is no fight, there is no battle. There is only your choice. It is the most powerful thing in this world.
Thanks for listening to my irritation. I don't even know if I stayed on topic, but I am not sure I care... haha :)
PS. Some fair warning, for a little more perspective on the power of the choices we have - if you attend a seminar with me about food and ask me which is better: Olive Oil and or Coconut Oil. I will giggle a bit (sorry) and I will tell you that that, my friend, is a very serious #firstworldquestion. ;)