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Cholesterol May Not Break Your Heart

fotolia_84870860Dr. Dilis Clare Consulting Medical Herbalist & General Practitioner
MBBCh,DRCOG, B.Sc. (Hons) Herbal Medicine

Cholesterol is much feared and has had a very bad press in recent years. It is in fact an essential and helpful chemical, most of which is produced by the liver. It is part of the structure of every cell in the body and is especially important for the brain.  As with many aspects of life too much of a good thing can be a problem.

One fifth of cholesterol comes from the diet. Many people know of the role too much fats play but what is often not acknowledged is the role of sugars. Fats and sugars are closely associated with each other as forms of usable energy and energy storage. They cannot be sensibly considered in isolation from each other. The biggest strain for the body is too much energy (food), the body then has to find a path for the elimination or storage of the overload.

We can reduce the cholesterol overload by one fifteenth if we take regular and varied exercise. A mixture of energetic exercise (the kind that makes us breathless and sweaty), stretching of muscles and strengthening of muscles (using weights such as a tin of beans for arm and shoulder exercises).

So now that we know where dietary cholesterol comes from how do we get rid of it? The answer is Fibre, Fibre, Fibre. All of our cholesterol is excreted in the stool so ‘a bowel movement a day takes the cholesterol away’. If you are constipated and have high cholesterol this is the first place to start.

The rest of the cholesterol we produce ourselves in the liver! I wonder why this happens? If we start with the belief that the body knows what it is doing, we can consider some of the possibilities. Maybe there are not enough helpful fats (Essential Fatty Acids) in the diet and the body is trying to compensate by making the next best thing? Or the body is chucking out other substances (eg. stress hormones) and the body is trying to protect us from the harmful effects of these chemicals? Maybe we are deficient in some vitamins (eg. Vitamin D- in 2007 70% of all new patients attending the rheumatology
clinic in Cork University Hospital were deficient in Vitamin D). Vitamin D is known to have an effect on sex hormones. These are structurally related to Vit D. Again the body is trying to protect us from a deficiency condition.

Cholesterol is related to the sterol hormones, including the sex hormones and the adrenal hormones. As such it is influenced by our brain chemicals. Managing stress with exercise, journal writing, having a pet and helping others are all evidence based ways of coping with ‘stress’. Prayer/meditation/reflective time-out all support positive mental balance.

Things to do:

  • Eat Essential Fatty Acids in the recommended amount.
  • 7 Portions of Fruit and Veg per day- yes that’s right 7! The Department of Health advises a minimum of five! Why have a minimum when you can benefit from optimum!
  • Eggs are eggscellent! Enjoy 5 per week.
  • Fibre ; Especially helpful are soluble fibres eg Oats, Oat Bran and Psyllium Husks. Slippery Elm is particularly helpful fibre for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who cannot tolerate insoluble fibres (skin of fruits and vegetables, beans and peas, wholegrains).
  • Exercise : Dance yourself happy! Walk and stretch regularly, join a class or group if you find it hard to self motivate.
  • Drink water ; 6 glasses per day.

Foods for strength of blood vessels : The humble blackberry and blackcurrent have a role to play also our native bilberry and hawthorn berry.

We seem to love new foods such as blueberries but all dark red and navy berries have the same strengthening effect particularly on the small vessels of our circulation. Rutin is also strengthening, this is high in buckwheat (try buckwheat pasta as a change from wheat pasta). The pith of citrus is also high in rutin, this is the white pithy core of citrus fruit.

Foods for reducing Cholesterol: All members of the onion family eg Chives, Leeks and especially Garlic. Include these in your diet on a regular basis.

Celery has a proven effect on reducing cholesterol. Eating 2 sticks a day has a demonstrable effect, eating 7 sticks a day will reduce high cholesterol.

Almonds has research evidence of reducing cholesterol. Include these as part of your 2-3 tsps. per day to cover your essential fatty acids.

Herbs for the Happy Heart:

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.); this is rich in antioxidants and cardiac glycosides which has good evidence for strengthening heart muscle.

Limeflower (Tilia spp.); This herb is traditionally used as an anti spasmodic, particularly for the small blood vessels. It is also used for restlessness, headache and high blood pressure. It is a gentle supportive herb used for all ages.

Alfalfa (Medicago): This is a highly nutritious herb with cholesterol lowering properties.

Chamomile (Chamomilla rec/mat.): Helpful for restlessness and anxiety. By calming the nervous system there is a feedback loop calming stress hormones.

Rose ( Rosa spp.): Good for lifting the spirits, soothing the digestion and viewing the world through ‘rose tinted glasses’.

Wild Oats (Aveena sativa): Full of nutrition, particularly plant sterols which lower cholesterol. This has traditionally been used to strengthen the circulatory and nervous systems (as in support for ‘sowing your wild oats’).

I have blended these herbs for convenience as a Hearty Tea available on the website or from the clinic. You can use them independently as teas (infusions), capsules or tinctures.

Ginko biloba ; This herb is available within the context of a consultation with a Medical Herbalist. It has a beneficial effect on the circulation, particularly the ‘stickiness’ of the blood. This plays a role in the inflammatory process which is associated with damage to the blood vessel walls that is associated with high cholesterol. It is also good for poor memory and concentration. (Contact for your nearest practitioner).

Spice up your life: Spices play a helpful role in protecting us from dietary excess, many people in western society are over-nourished and malnourished at the same time! We take in too many calories but not always including the essential building blocks we need for cell metabolism. Spices help us obtain the best from our foods.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an anti-inflammatory spice. In order for Cholesterol to cause harm there has to be inflammatory process. Turmeric protects us from this inflammatory process (leaflet available on the website for more information).

Black Pepper (Piper nigra) is a ‘helper’ for Turmeric. Taken together the turmeric is 1/3 more effective.

Fenugreek seeds (Trigonella foenum grecum) play several helpful roles, they help modulate sugar metabolism, add fibre and contain helpful plant sterols. (leaflet available on website for more info.).

Cinnamon ( Cinnomomum verum) helps the body process refined sugars. Use on toast instead of marmalade, put in porridge or cereal, add to a yoghurt etc.

The spices should be used liberally! Not a dainty sprinkle from a shaker still half full from two years ago! Use 25 -50 gms per week happily. 

Dr Clare is a medical herbalist and GP practising in Galway City. Tel: 091 583260 for more


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