Holistic Health

10 Causes of High Cholesterol in Women: What You Might Not Know

April 28, 2022

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I'm Kimberly - a women's health functional nurse practitioner.  I am here to help you achieve vibrant health!

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HEART DISEASE IS THE LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH AMONG WOMEN IN THE UNITIED STATES! Improving heart health is critical for women of all ages (read my blog post about this). Abnormal cholesterol is strongly associated with heart disease. A common perception, however, is that the cholesterol itself is “bad.” While abnormal cholesterol levels may be considered a risk factor for heart disease, it is important to understand the truth about what cholesterol really is and how it is related to the risk for heart disease.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of lipid (fat) in the body that is critical for several important functions. It helps produce and transport fat soluble vitamins (such as vitamin D). Cholesterol helps to build healthy cell membranes and brain cells. It is necessary for hormone production (such as cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone). And cholesterol helps to address and control inflammation caused by injury, infection, illness, toxins, poor diet, poor sleep and stress.

Is Cholesterol Bad?

Cholesterol is often perceived as the “bad guy” when it comes to heart disease. However, this is not entirely true. Cholesterol is designed to actually support the health of the cardiovascular system. Cholesterol helps to repair damage to the blood vessel walls so that blood can flow freely and smoothly to and from the heart. Certain types of cholesterol (LDL) can become elevated in an attempt to repair damage in the blood vessels. When cholesterol becomes “too high” in these efforts to repair, it can actually start to accumulate and embed in the walls of the vessels. Plaques may begin to form when this occurs. Plaques can eventually block blood flow to critical organs such as the heart and lead to heart disease or possibly a heart attack.

It is important to recognize that cholesterol is simply attempting to repair damage caused by a variety of sources including inflammation. Most often, it is the inflammation that is the real culprit in regards to heart disease. Therefore, if we address inflammation, as a root cause of cardiovascular disease, there will be less chance of the need for cholesterol to “come to the rescue”.

Causes of Abnormal Cholesterol

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There are many underlying causes of abnormal cholesterol. All potential causes should be considered when attempting to normalize cholesterol and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. Chances are, more than one underlying cause may be actively contributing to the situation. The good news is that we can DO SOMETHING about abnormal cholesterol if we address the ROOT CAUSE(S) of the problem. And this is a much different approach than prescribing medication (statins) to lower cholesterol rather than addressing the root cause. Following are 10 common causes of abnormal cholesterol.

Familial Hypercholesterolemia (Genetics)

Women sometimes come to me reporting that they have a hereditary form of high cholesterol (called familial hypercholesterolemia which we will call “FH”). This often raises a red flag in my mind for a couple of reasons.

First of all, a genetic test is the most accurate method to confirm a diagnosis FH. Most of the time genetic testing is not performed, but rather a diagnosis is made based on cholesterol numbers alone.

Secondly, when someone is told they have FH, they often mistakenly assume there is nothing more that can be done to correct the problem. This type of thinking, in my opinion, is very dangerous. It can put women at higher risk due to the “acceptance” of the genetically high cholesterol assumption without further investigation into other possible causes or contributing factors. In other words, this type of thinking can result in a dangerous sense of complacency about the situation.

Thyroid Dysfunction

High cholesterol is associated with LOW functioning thyroid (hypothyroid). Even a slight decline in thyroid function (such as subclinical hypothyroid) can impact cholesterol levels. Thyroid hormones contribute to how our body produces and utilizes cholesterol. Low thyroid function results in overproduction of LDL and reduced excretion of unnecessary LDL from the body. Both scenarios result in higher levels of LDL nd Total cholesterol. Treating the thyroid dysfunction can result in normalizing cholesterol levels.

Metabolic Dysfunction

Metabolic dysfunction such as insulin resistance, prediabetes, diabetes, PCOS, and obesity can impact cholesterol negatively. These conditions can result in lowering of HDL (good cholesterol) and can also raise Triglyceride cholesterol. Triglyceride cholesterol can cause inflammation in the body, and specifically in the blood vessels. When triglycerides cause inflammation, the body’s natural response is to produce more LDL cholesterol to repair the damage. Therefore, addressing the metabolic dysfunction will reduce inflammation, normalize cholesterol, and as a result, reduce the risk of heart disease.

Poor Liver or Kidney Health

The liver helps both in the production of cholesterol as well as removing excess cholesterol from the body. The kidneys are important to help excrete toxins and other waste from the body. Toxin build up in the body can cause inflammation. If these two organs are not working well, they will be less effective in the management of cholesterol in the body. By addressing liver dysfunction (such as fatty liver disease) and kidney dysfunction (such as chronic kidney disease), the risk of abnormal cholesterol levels decreases.

Chronic Infections

Bacterial and viral infections can both contribute to high cholesterol. When infection occurs in the body, cholesterol naturally rises. This occurs so that cholesterol can “come to the rescue” to address the invading bacteria or virus. Infections that can contribute to high cholesterol include H. Pylori, latent viral infections such as herpes simplex virus (HSV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein Barr Virus (the virus that causes “mono” or chronic fatigue syndrome), and even infection from gum disease. Acute infections also cause an elevation in LDL cholesterol. It is important to address any type of infection (acute or chronic) in the body in order to promote normal cholesterol levels.

Poor Gut Health

Problems in the gut can cause cholesterol levels to rise. This occurs when there is an imbalance of bacteria such as an overgrowth (dysbiosis or SIBO), or if there is a problem in the permeability of the lining of the gut (Leaky Gut). Both conditions cause inflammation which can in turn cause the LDL cholesterol to increase in an attempt to “repair” the damage or infection in the gut. By addressing the health of the gut, and supporting a balanced microbiome, cholesterol will likely move towards normal levels.

Hormone Imbalance

Chronic stress and poor sleep can lead to increased cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body. This in turn can cause more insulin production which can lead to insulin resistance or metabolic dysfunction. Ultimately, LDL and Total cholesterol will increase in this scenario. Ensuring healthy sleep habits, and addressing things like sleep apnea or chronic stress, will go far to reduce the chance of abnormal cholesterol levels.

Environmental Toxins

Environmental toxins, heavy metals in particular, can contribute to abnormal cholesterol. Toxins can cause inflammation. Inflammation causes more production of cholesterol. This occurs in an attempt to rid the body of the offending toxins. Toxins can also challenge the liver and the kidneys, thus interfering with the cholesterol production and excretion. Identifying toxic load in the body and encouraging healthy detoxification flow in the body will encourage normal cholesterol levels.

Lifestyle

Overweight, poor diet, inactivity, smoking, alcohol excess, stress, and poor sleep all produce stress an inflammation in the body and can cause cholesterol to rise as a result. Attending to healthy lifestyle will go far to promote healthy cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Healthy lifestyle, and especially nutrition, are a key component to a holistic health plan that addresses cardiovascular disease risk.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation (a form of STRESS in the body) caused by poor diet, long term stress, infections, poor sleep, and can lead to elevated cortisol (the stress hormone). Cholesterol helps to produce the cortisol. Therefore, the body produces more cholesterol in order to make more cortisol to respond to stress from inflammation. Lowering inflammation in the body is contribute to reducing the risk of heart disease.

Putting it All Together

Photo by Khadeeja Yasser on Unsplash

As you can see, there are many factors at play when it comes to influences on the cholesterol levels in our bodies. What is important is to ensure that we are addressing the ROOT CAUSES of the abnormal cholesterol. A functional medicine approach is perfect for this.

Function medicine looks to identify the underlying cause(s) rather than masking the symptoms (abnormal cholesterol) with medication. The body will manage cholesterol in a healthy fashion if root causes are identified and addressed,.

Interested in learning more about how to support heart health? Read my blog post about this.

Schedule a FREE CONSULTATION with me to discuss your cardiovascular disease risk. You can schedule a free consultation HERE. I would be excited to delve into this with you as I love to teach women about what is going on in the body that may be contributing to symptoms such as abnormal cholesterol.

Join my email list to learn more about women’s health from a functional medicine perspective. My weekly emails are simple, beautifully designed, and provide holistic health information pertaining to women’s issues. And, please visit my website www.valenciasage.com to learn more about my unique approach to women’s health! Take care. Kimberly

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