High levels of cholesterol are a leading risk factor in heart disease, however, our understanding has significantly changed in the last decade. It was once thought that high fat intake increased cholesterol and contributed to heart disease. Emerging research counters this concept and argues that inflammation and oxidation are at the root cause of high cholesterol. Studies are showing astaxanthin intake is correlated with healthier cholesterol levels, read on to see what the research has to say!
What is Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat produced by the liver. Its main functions in the body are to synthesize hormones and vitamin D, produce bile and enable communication between cells. It circulates through the body via transporter molecules HDL and LDL.
HDL - is known as the “good” cholesterol. It removes cholesterol from the blood, and takes it back to the liver to be excreted, regulating the total amount of cholesterol found in the body (1).
LDL- is known as the “bad” cholesterol. It takes cholesterol throughout the body for use in the biological activities mentioned above. When there’s excess LDL, cholesterol can deposit in the blood vessels. When this occurs, deposits (plaques) build up, contributing to cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke (1).
HDL and LDL both have vital functions in the body, and at normal levels are essential for survival. A healthy cholesterol profile has a higher ratio of HDL than LDL.
When Does Cholesterol Become a Problem?
Cholesterol isn’t inherently bad, in fact, the liver internally produces 70% of total cholesterol in the body. The problem arises when cholesterol becomes damaged (oxidized) or there is excess inflammation in the body.
LDL gets damaged when it comes into contact with free radicals. The damaged form of LDL embeds in the artery walls, causing plaque to build up. This can lead to atherosclerosis, which is a hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to plaque (1).
When we see elevated cholesterol levels, it generally stems from underlying inflammation. Inflammation harms the blood vessels, and cholesterol acts as a band aid, repairing damaged arteries. If the arteries are in an inflamed state, the liver, independent of diet will produce more cholesterol. When there is a chronic inflammatory response, and cholesterol is being used to “fix” the blood vessels, plaques can begin to form (2).
Take Away: Free radicals and inflammation are at the root of atherosclerosis as they negatively influence cholesterol levels and integrity of blood vessels (1,2).
Nutraceutical Approach to Managing Cholesterol
Supplements that provide antioxidants and reduce overall inflammation may help to promote healthy cholesterol levels and prevent it from becoming damaged (3). This differs from medications which reduce the livers capacity to produce cholesterol.
Astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound, and of course, has been studied for its role in managing cholesterol. One study looked at the effects of astaxanthin on LDL oxidation. They found doses of astaxanthin starting at 3.6mg/day on healthy subjects helped to stabilize LDL, preventing it from becoming damaged and therefore reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease (1).
In a human trial, researchers found that 6mg/day of astaxanthin significantly increased HDL levels, which are classically associated with lower cardiovascular risk. A feat that dietary and pharmaceutical interventions have been unsuccessful at. (1,4).
Astaxanthin and berberine, a herbal compound, was found to increase LDL receptors in the liver in in-vitro studies. This allows the LDL to congregate in the liver as opposed to circulating through the blood, thereby reducing the risk for atherosclerosis. Human studies are needed, but the evidence is promising (3).
Dietary Approach to Managing Cholesterol
Increasing fibre has positive effects on reducing cholesterol levels. Fiber binds to cholesterol and allows it to leave the body. Fiber is found in fruits and vegetables which also contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds (3,5).
When looking to improve your cholesterol profile, it’s important to modify diet first. Increasing antioxidants and removing inflammatory foods sets the foundation for healthy cholesterol levels. Nutritional supplements such as astaxanthin can further help to combat free radicals and inflammation that lead to damaged arteries and oxidized LDL - without interfering with the body’s healthy production of essential cholesterol.
Disclaimer: The article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Should you have any health concerns, you should see your doctor.