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A Functional Nutrition Approach to High Cholesterol

If you read our article, The Truth About Cholesterol, you may be wondering how to address your high cholesterol if the conventional model doesn’t work. Fear not - we’ve created this resource to help you determine the underlying cause of your high cholesterol and address it with realistic dietary, lifestyle and supplement considerations. 

What are the underlying causes of high cholesterol? 

From a functional medicine standpoint, high cholesterol is viewed as a symptom or marker of underlying imbalances in the body rather than a standalone issue. Functional medicine seeks to identify and address the root causes of health conditions, including high cholesterol. 

Some common underlying factors contributing to high cholesterol include:

  • Diet and Nutrition: Poor dietary choices, such as a diet high in saturated and trans fats, refined sugars, alcohol, and processed foods, can contribute to elevated cholesterol levels. Functional medicine emphasizes the importance of a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet to promote optimal metabolic function.

  • Metabolic Dysfunction: Chronically dysregulated blood sugar and/or insulin resistance is often associated with high cholesterol levels. Improving blood sugar stability is a cornerstone to addressing high cholesterol. 

  • Inflammation: Chronic inflammation can lead to the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, making it more atherogenic. Identifying and addressing sources of inflammation, such as poor diet, stress, and environmental factors is an essential step to addressing cholesterol concerns. 

  • Gut Health: The gut microbiome plays a role in cholesterol metabolism. Imbalances in gut bacteria, chronic infections, and overall poor gut health can contribute to elevated cholesterol levels.  

  • Genetic Factors: As mentioned, a small amount of people are “hyper-responders” to dietary cholesterol due to their genetic predisposition. These people may need to be more mindful of their dietary intake and minimize food sources of cholesterol like eggs and animal products.  

  • Lifestyle Factors: Sedentary lifestyles, lack of exercise, and chronic stress can contribute to high cholesterol. 

  • Thyroid Dysfunction: Thyroid imbalances, particularly hypothyroidism, can impact lipid metabolism and contribute to high cholesterol. If you have high cholesterol, it’s a good idea to have your thyroid assessed. 

  • Environmental Toxins: Exposure to environmental toxins, such as pollutants, heavy metals, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, can influence lipid metabolism.  

The Functional Medicine Approach to High Cholesterol 

If you’re worried about your cholesterol, the first step is to seek specialized tests, including assessments for lipoprotein(a), A1c, and inflammatory markers to provide a comprehensive understanding of your true risk factors. 

Once we have these test results, we’ll focus on identifying and addressing the underlying cause(s). For most folks, we’ll start by eliminating inflammatory foods like ultra-processed foods, sugar sweetened beverages, and seed oils. We’ll replace these with nutrient-dense whole foods like colorful vegetables, high fiber fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and high-quality animal proteins. 

Yes, we said animal proteins! Grass-fed, grass-finished beef, organic pasture-raised chicken and eggs, and wild caught fish are superfoods full of nutrients that reduce inflammation, promote muscle growth and maintenance, support gut health and so much more. 

Consider boosting your soluble fiber intake to support your heart health by regularly including the following foods: 

  • Berries 

  • Figs 

  • Apples 

  • Pears 

  • Avocados 

  • Flaxseeds 

  • Chia seeds 

  • Artichokes 

  • Sweet potatoes 

  • Peas 

  • Carrots 

  • Broccoli 

  • Oats 

  • Beans

  • Asparagus 

Supporting liver detox is one of the best things you can do to enhance cholesterol metabolism. Drinking enough water, regularly moving your body, and eating enough fiber makes for a healthy, happy liver. Eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, arugula, and brussel sprouts, plus a variety of other fiber sources provides the right nutrients for liver detoxification. Bitter foods like artichokes, asparagus, dark chocolate, and tahini help promote the secretion of digestive enzymes that support the entire GI tract, including the liver. 

Blood sugar balance is a priority for metabolic health and reducing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Adding protein, healthy fats, and fiber to your plate at every meal is a great place to start. Reducing your intake of added sugars and ultra-processed foods will naturally reduce your carb intake and help stabilize blood sugar. Going for a short walk after meals, building muscle, and getting high quality sleep are other ways to promote stable blood sugar.

We can’t talk about heart health without talking about exercise. Exercises that increase your heart rate are great for building a strong heart. Try walking, jogging, a dance class, biking, swimming, or anything else that gets your heart beating. Weight bearing exercises are great for increasing muscle mass that supports blood sugar stability as well. Aim for 20-30 minutes a day of exercise that you actually enjoy! 

Reducing stress is an often overlooked strategy for reducing inflammation and supporting heart health. Get curious about what activities help ease your stress. Journaling, meditating, practicing yoga, massage, acupuncture or talking to a trusted friend are good options. But the most important thing is that you adopt a strategy that helps you feel calm on a daily basis. 

Sleep is a major piece of the heart health puzzle, as it directly impacts metabolic function and overall cardiovascular health. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night, ideally going to bed and waking up at a similar time every day. Keep your room cool and dark, stop caffeine after 12pm, and avoid electronics the hour before you go to bed to really optimize the quality of your sleep. 

By implementing these strategies, you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular issues and promote overall health and vitality.  

Supplemental Considerations 

There are supplemental considerations when it comes to elevated cholesterol, but these should be determined on an individual basis with the help of one of our qualified functional nutritionists. We may leverage supplements to address the underlying cause of your high cholesterol and inflammation, but these will vary depending on the person. 

Some supplements we may consider include:

  • A high-quality multi-vitamin and mineral

  • Vitamin C or E

  • Fish oil

  • Soluble fiber supplement

  • Aged garlic

  • Red yeast rice

  • Resveratrol 

  • Milk thistle 

  • Magnesium 

  • Plant sterols 

  • Curcumin 

  • Berberine

Working with our team means you’ll receive individualized supplemental recommendations and access to our online supplement store. We always recommend the highest quality, third-party tested supplements so you get the safest, most effective options on the market. 

Final Thoughts 

The information surrounding cholesterol is confusing at best. It’s a common misnomer that cholesterol is bad, especially when we get it from food. But we actually need cholesterol and most of it’s made by the liver, rather than consumed through food. Certain particles of cholesterol become a problem when they are oxidized. Fortunately, dietary and lifestyle modifications can dramatically reduce inflammation, support liver detox, and regulate metabolic health to support your heart health and reduce the risk of disease. 

So, don’t fear the egg yolks (from pasture-raised chickens), but do avoid the ultra-processed foods! 

If you’re concerned about your cholesterol, consider working with one of our licensed Functional Nutritionists to get hands-on support, tailored to your unique preferences and goals. 

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