What's cholesterol have to do with digestion?

Posted on: March 22nd 2011

This monthwhat’s cholesterol have to do with digestion?

Let’s face it, when it comes to health there’s an over-abundance of confusing information. Just within the last few days I’ve had multiple conversations with people clearly stumped by conflicting opinions: Does the radiation fallout pose any danger for us in the United States? Is flouride a toxin or a heroic agent that thwarts tooth decay? And then, there’s always the puzzle about cholesterol. Good? Bad? What’s too high? Is there a too low?

In the Fat or Fiction homestudy course we explore the role of different fats as well as the history of the cholesterol controversy. But in preparing for this weekend’s inaugural Pharm2Table class on statins, I’ve been thinking more about the role of cholesterol on our digestion. Here’s where I have to reveal a secret. Whenever I encounter one of these confusing topics, I do two things. The first is to look to the resources I know and trust. The second is to delve into the science. Science, particularly physiology, is what gives me the scoop. Far more than any dietary theory, which can’t and doesn’t work for every individual or every health situation, understanding physiology is a key ingredient for nutritional healing.

What exactly does cholesterol have to do with digestion?
A lot actually. Stick with me and we’ll take a quick little journey. Cholesterol synthesizes bile acids. Bile acids are essential for the absorption of fat from the small intestines. The bile acids work like a detergent to break down and emulsify fat into microscopic droplets. Those tiny beads of fat then have enough of an exposed surface area for lipases (your fat digestive enzymes) to come in and do their job of digestion.

It’s the liver that is making and using the cholesterol to produce the bile acids that are required for that process.

It looks like this:

  • Most cholesterol is produced in the body by the liver (and does not come from the food you eat).
  • After creating cholesterol, the liver sends out two different agents ~ LDL (low-density lipoproteins) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins).
  • The LDL travels away from the liver and into the blood and has several functions. These include:
    ~ protection and repair of cell walls so that they are appropriately permeable (allowing only what is opportune to pass in and out of each and every cell in your body)
    ~ function as the back-bone for many of our sex and stress hormones (think: progesterone, testosterone, estrogen, cortisol)
    ~ and cholesterol produces the bile acids that allows for the vital digestion and absorption of the fats, oils and fat soluble vitamins (like your vitamin D!) from the foods you eat.
  • A key role of HDL is transporting the excess cholesterol from the bloodstream back to the liver for secretion. HDL does the clean-up.

If you made it with me this far, or if you’ve already chewed those facts, then you know cholesterol is vital for good health. Your cells need it. Your hormones need it. Your digestive tract needs it. But two of the top-selling drugs are cholesterol lowering statins. What are the implications of lowering cholesterol with statins? And what else are statins doing in the body? Liz Wallace, ND and I will be your trusted resource for exploring the science of statins and cholesterol on the body in fun and digestible ways in this weekend’s Pharm2Table: Statins class, presented live in PDX. Click here for more information and to reserve your seat at our table!

Eater’s Digest Homework:

Since cholesterol is mostly produced in the liver, the vitality of the liver is critical for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. When your liver is in balance, it produces more HDL to help with the clean-up of the cholesterol circulating in the blood. This is why higher HDL is considered good.

Here is your #1 Eater’s Digest tip for supporting the health of your liver:
Eat more fiber
Chances are you’ve already heard the ‘Eat more fiber’ mantra. Yet, on average, Americans consume about 1/3 the amount of fiber needed. Fiber binds and transports extra bile acids out of the body so it isn’t reabsorbed by the liver.

Excellent fiber rich foods include:

  • vegetables (particularly hearty leafy greens, cauliflower and broccoli)
  • fruits (most berries and apples have great fiber)
  • seeds (ground flax is a winner and chia has lots of fiber as well)
  • beans (lentils, black, pinto, garbanzo, lima)
  • and cinnamon too!