2015 saw a big shift in the official medical views on cholesterol. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reversed their 30-year stand to say that “cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
It turns out that 30 years’ worth of research failed to find a correlation between eating foods with high cholesterol and heart health. And some studies actually found a correlation between longer life and higher cholesterol. A Norwegian study showed that as cholesterol increased, so did life-span. A 2015 Japanese study came up with the same conclusion: the higher the cholesterol levels, the longer the longevity factor.
Cholesterol is an important fatty acid produced in the liver. It is essential to many bodily functions. Without cholesterol the body could not build cell membranes or synthesize vitamin D or hormones. Cholesterol is also vital for our brain, playing a key role in the formation of memories.
What does Western Medicine’s new take on cholesterol mean for those trying to improve their heart health and/or support healthy brain functioning? It means that the findings are now more in line with the 5000 year old science of Ayurveda. It is not that foods with a high cholesterol content are, in and of themselves, “bad”. The important consideration is how your body processes those foods.
Western medicine teaches us that cholesterol is available in two forms: high-density cholesterol (HDL) (“good” cholesterol) and low-density cholesterol (LDL) (“bad” cholesterol).
HDL (Good) Cholesterol
HDL cholesterol is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries. It is believed that HDL acts as a scavenger, carrying LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is broken down and eliminated from the body. Low levels of HDL cholesterol have been linked to memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. It has also been linked to higher risks of depression and stroke.
LDL (Bad) Cholesterol
LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible. High levels of “bad” cholesterol has been linked to brain deposits that cause Alzheimer’s Disease.
What Western Medicine continues to consider important is the ratio of “good” to “bad” cholesterol. 3.5 to 1 is the standard. A healthy ratio of good vs. bad cholesterol is associated with lower levels of the plaque in the brain and heart health.
Ayurveda Approach to Cholersterol
Ayurveda has always taken the view that cholesterol is only “bad” when it is out of balance. It is “good” when it is balanced, supporting and lubricating the body’s numerous circulatory channels, known as the shrotas.
The health of the circulatory channels, or shrotas, is essential to a well-functioning physiology. There are micro-shrotas, which carry nutrients to the cells and waste from the cells. There are larger shrotas, such as the arteries and veins, which carry blood to and from the heart. And there are delicate shrotas that lead to our brain. All of these shrotas must be flexible and elastic if we are to remain healthy. And cholesterol, when it is balanced, plays a critical role in lubricating and maintaining all these channels of circulation. With this perspective, one can see why high amounts of good cholesterol would be associated with longer life-span.
“Good” cholesterol becomes “bad” cholesterol when we have large amounts of ama in our system. Ama is the sticky waste product of poor digestion, absorption and metabolism. It accumulates as a toxin in the fat tissues. When it continues to accumulate over time, ama spreads into other parts of the body, including the important channels of circulation, nourishment and detoxification.
According to Ayurveda, the production of cholesterol does not necessarily need to be lessened, but instead needs to be balanced. Which comes down to maintaining a healthy and well-functioning power of digestion. In Ayurveda, digestion is king. When our digestion is balanced and healthy, the body will produce the right amount of cholesterol, in the right proportion to nourish the body.
Natural Ways to Lower “Bad” Cholesterol Through Diet and Improved Digestion
To lower “bad” cholesterol Ayurveda recommends a two-pronged approach: Improve digestion and follow a Kapha-balancing diet to enhance fat metabolism.
A Kapha-pacifying diet favors bitter, astringent and pungent foods. Astringent foods include dried beans such as lentils, split mung dhal, and garbanzo beans. Astringent tastes also include many vegetables, such as the cruciferous family (brussels’ sprouts,broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower) and fruits such as apples and pears. Bitter foods include greens such as spinach, chard, kale and mustard greens. The Kapha-pacifying grains include barely, quinoa, amaranth and oats (whole oats, not processed oats.) Avoid sweet tastes, including rice, wheat, pasta, breads, and sweet milk products. Avoid sour foods such as sour fruit (lemons), yogurt, cheese, tomatoes, vinegar, salad dressings, ketchup, mustard and pickles. Oddly enough, while it is recommended to avoid yogurt, digestive lassi, made of yogurt and water, turns out to be good for balancing cholesterol. Avoid sweet lassi and mango lassi and opt for the digestive lassi. Favor warm foods cooked with small amounts of ghee or olive oil.
Ayurveda offers many tips on improving digestion:
Eat your main meal at noon and a smaller, freshly cooked meal (that is easy to digest) in the evening.
Allow 3 to 6 hours between meals. Do not eat before the previous meal is digested.
Sip hot water between meals. This enlivens digestion and helps the food to be better dissolved and absorbed.
Do not drink cold liquids or foods with a meal, as they suppress digestion.
Chew your food well.
Do not drink milk with vegetables, meat, fish, sour foods, salt or eggs. Milk should be taken alone (preferably having been boiled first) or with other sweet tastes (like cereal, bread or sweets). Do not drink cold milk.
Sit comfortably for 10 to 15 minutes after finishing your meal. This allows the digestive process to get well underway. If you immediately jump up from a meal, digestion will be disrupted and the food will be improperly processed.
Detoxification is a natural body process. Our natural ability to detoxify, however, can become compromised when our system becomes overloaded from stress, poor diet, a compromised digestion, and environmental toxins. What can we do to support the body’s natural process of detoxification? Panchakarma, the traditional purification treatments of Ayurveda, help remove ama from deep within the tissue beds and also from the innumerable shrotas, or circulatory channels. Cleansing and detoxifying the body also helps build up our natural digestive fire, which can then do its job of naturally burning up any ama that accumulates in the body.