Innocent. That’s the verdict. It only took fifty years of incarceration to prove that it was not the criminal. The media warned society to keep away. A 1984 Time magazine cover condemned it. People avoided it like the plague. And now, finally, it has cleared its name. So who is this that was so wrongfully accused, you ask? Cholesterol.
No one wants to sit innocently behind bars for decades. In the case of cholesterol, the tragedy is that it was just trying to help. It arrived on the scene to serve a life-saving purpose, as it so often does.
Instead of being the cause of premature death, cholesterol is the hero.
While it’s now proven that cholesterol does not cause heart disease, scientists are also beginning to appreciate the link between cholesterol and cancer. Could this mighty substance be protective against cancer? The answer might surprise you.
What is cholesterol?
The words fat and cholesterol are often used interchangeably. However, they are very different. Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance classified as a sterol, a combination of a steroid and alcohol.
Although many have portrayed cholesterol as something that hangs out in the bloodstream, it’s more complicated than that. Like oil and water, cholesterol and blood don’t mix well. Therefore, for cholesterol to move smoothly through the body, it’s encased and carried by lipoproteins. Like little boats or vehicles, lipoproteins transport cholesterol and essential fats, hormones, and enzymes through the body.
Some lipoproteins are higher density than others. At the very basic level, they are categorized as either low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or high-density lipoproteins (HDL). However, a deeper dive shows that the best health indicators are lipoprotein particle size and LDL to HDL ratio.
Where does cholesterol come from?
Cholesterol presents in our body in one of two ways. While it can enter via the food we eat, most cholesterol production happens in the liver.
The body tightly regulates the amount of circulating cholesterol. In other words, when dietary cholesterol intake is low, the body makes more.
What role does cholesterol play in the body?
Present in every single cell of the body, cholesterol serves many vital functions, including:
- Cell wall formation, integrity, and function
- Creation of essential hormones, including sex hormones
- Precursor for vitamin D
- Absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Plays a role in digestion by creating bile salts
- Helps regulate the nervous system and supports brain health
Cholesterol as the body’s repair system
In addition to the benefits already listed, cholesterol plays a vital role in repairing the body. Cholesterol repairs wounds, including tears or irritations in the arteries. When an arterial wall is damaged, cholesterol comes to the rescue, attempting to repair the injury.
After all, it’s cholesterol’s job to make up the cell wall. So while it was long believed that cholesterol was the cause of plaque buildup, it’s now understood that cholesterol is there to fix the underlying problem: inflammation.
Cholesterol as a disease fighter?
Now that we know that cholesterol arrives on the scene to serve, it begs the question: could cholesterol help fight cancer?
Cancer is a complicated disease caused by various factors, including poor diet, exposure to environmental toxins, smoking, obesity, and stress, to name a few. Since we all face some of these dangers, why doesn’t everyone get cancer? The answer may lie in the immune system.
At any given moment, our bodies contain DNA-damaged cells. These cells have the potential to become cancerous. However, in most cases, the immune system destroys these cancerous cells before multiplying and spreading. Any impairment of immunity can negate this process.
Multiple studies have found a link between cholesterol levels and infectious disease. For example, a recent 2020 study found blood cholesterol levels are much lower in those with severe Covid-19. As a result, medical professionals concluded that Covid-19 patients should immediately stop taking cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Further, evidence suggests that cholesterol acts as an antioxidant against free radicals. For example, multiple studies have found HDL to have protective antioxidant qualities. Cholesterol may play a role in combating oxidative stress in the body, thus reducing cancer risk.
What kind of cancer might cholesterol protect against?
Evidence is mounting on the cancer-protective effects of cholesterol. Science illustrates that higher cholesterol may reduce the risk of the following cancers:
Prostate cancer and cholesterol
LDL may play an important role in protecting against prostate cancer. For example, in a study of 371 men undergoing radiation and surgery for prostate cancer, those with the highest LDL levels fared better. The study found that individuals with the highest LDL levels had 33 percent less cancer recurrence compared to those with the lowest LDL levels.
Lung cancer and cholesterol
According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer rates have risen steadily, especially among women. A study from the 1990s showed that low cholesterol levels caused a significant increase in lung cancer deaths in older women. Since then, researchers have confirmed the association. A recent study found that lung cancer patients with the highest cholesterol levels had a 67 percent lower risk of dying.
Breast cancer and cholesterol
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. A large 2017 study concluded that women over 40 with high cholesterol were 45 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those without high cholesterol. Moreover, of the women who developed breast cancer, those with higher cholesterol levels had a 40 percent lower risk of death.
Pancreatic cancer and cholesterol
Pancreatic cancer is called the silent killer, as it often does not exhibit symptoms until it’s too late. Studies have found that men with the highest cholesterol levels had a 48 percent lower risk of pancreatic cancer. The study also concluded that these same men had a 33 percent lower risk of non-melanoma skin cancer, 86 percent lower risk of liver/gallbladder cancer, and a 32 percent lower risk of lymphoma and leukemia.
Colorectal cancer and cholesterol
The impacts of colorectal cancer are far-reaching — it is the second leading cause of cancer death among men in the United States. A 2016 study suggests that individuals with higher cholesterol levels are more protected from colorectal cancer than those with lower levels.
Low cholesterol may be a sign of cancer
While the “dangers” of high cholesterol are reiterated repeatedly by health care professionals, the actual concern might be low cholesterol. Multiple studies have found associations between low total cholesterol levels and increased cancer risks.
A 2009 study found that men with lower cholesterol levels had an 18 percent higher cancer risk. Researchers also concluded that men with higher HDL cholesterol levels had a 14 percent lower cancer risk. But, as we know, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. The authors suggest that lowered cholesterol levels may result from undetected cancer instead of the cause.
A 2016 study reiterates these findings. Researchers conclude that unexplained decreases in total cholesterol should be a red flag for doctors, alerting them to consider colon cancer as a possible cause. In addition, a recent 2020 study found that low HDL levels contributed to an increased risk of several cancers, specifically blood and nervous system cancers.
Inflammation is the culprit
The relationship between cholesterol and cancer is complex. Many of the factors that influence cholesterol levels also impact cancer. For example, a diet high in sugar, processed grains, and artificial trans fats contributes to impaired cholesterol and increased cancer rates. The biggest commonality between cholesterol and cancer is that they both are aggravated by inflammation.
After being the villain for many years, cholesterol is finally getting the credit it rightfully deserves. However, it’s a complex conclusion with some caveats.
The best way to optimize cholesterol levels and reduce your cancer risk is to focus on a nutrient-dense, organic, 100 Year Heart Diet. Add in regular exercise. Reduce your stress and surround yourself with loving people. Consume only high-quality water. Prioritize your sleep and sunlight exposure by rising and falling with the sun. Finally, do all you can to eliminate exposure to toxins.
Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well
Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD