The word Cholesterol evokes some amount of aversion in an average person today. For years doctors have warned us about the dangers of high cholesterol levels resulting in various heart diseases, and have instructed patients to keep cholesterol levels low at all costs. While in Ayurveda, ghee and coconut oil are considered beneficial for regular consumption; their use is generally considered risky in general science because these are saturated fats known to increase cholesterol.
So, what is Cholesterol?
A waxy solid compound, cholesterol (Greek word chole- (bile), stereos (solid) and suffix -ol for an alcohol) is both a lipid (fat) as well as a sterol (steroid alcohol from which steroid hormones are produced). It moves throughout the bloodstream in small packages called lipoproteins, attached to triglycerides and phospholipids.
There are two types of lipoproteins – high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). LDL has a lower protein to fat ration and transports cholesterol throughout your body to the cells and tissues that require it while HDL has a higher protein to fat ratio, and collect any excess cholesterol and deliver it to the liver, which may use it to produce bile, or otherwise recycle it. An adult human weighing about 70 kg makes about 1000 mg of Cholesterol per day.
The start of Cholesterol monitoring was after a study in 1951 when fatty fibrous deposits with Cholesterol were found to cause blockages in the arteries resulting in heart failure. Thus Coronary Heart Disease and Cholesterol became intertwined. Consumption of saturated fat elevates HDL and LDL lipoprotein levels in the blood and this lead to the diet-heart hypothesis, which says your high fat diet causes heart disease.
But in 2013, the revised guidelines of American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) has advised people at risk to focus on a holistic plan including exercise and diet rather than Cholesterol lowering drugs like statins. There is actually no long term study with decisive indications for or against cholesterol. Hence a good understanding of what is Cholesterol and how it got associated with heart disease in the first place would be illuminating.
Food is just another source of Cholesterol and plant sources contain very little of it. Also, dietary cholesterol is poorly absorbed. Like other fats, Cholesterol is insoluble in blood and is transported by LDL and HDL. It is the levels of HDL and LDL transports, containing fats as well as Cholesterol, that are reported in the blood tests rather than the actually Cholesterol levels.
Actually, there is no direct relationship between HDL and LDL levels and Cholesterol. Being an important bio requirement in the body, the body maintains optimal Cholesterol levels through its own mechanisms. But when we consume fat, increased fat levels in the blood take up the available lipoprotein transport particles. To transport the essential Cholesterol, the body produces additional HDL and LDL lipoproteins. And this causes the blood report with high HDL and LDL levels. Your cholesterol levels are more or less stable. It is the high number of LDL particles that cause arterial damage and not the Cholesterol.
The LDL particle count is a more reliable measure of the risk for disease. And HDL particles help in repairing the arterial damage done by LDL. So the important things to check are the LDL particle count in the blood and LDL to HDL ratio, rather than the Cholesterol levels. LDL-C is the test that measures the number of LDL particles (LDL-P) and/or their size. A measure of 100 – 129 mg/dL (2.6 – 3.3 mmol/L) is considered near ideal any above 190 mg/dL (4.9 mmol/L) is very high.
Ayurveda and Cholesterol
Ayurveda discusses meda dhatu (lipid tissue) and talks about how to maintain a healthy quantity and quality of fat tissue in the body. When the meda dhatu is balanced, cholesterol levels in the body are also balanced. Meda dhatu (fat tissue), is one of the seven dhatus, or body tissues that support and sustain the body. Others include rasa dhatu (nutritive fluid), rakta dhatu (blood plasma), mamsa dhatu (muscle), asthi dhatu (bone), majja dhatu (bone marrow), and shukra dhatu (sperm and ovum)
A moderate lifestyle, diet and daily routine are the key elements to balance meda dhatu and most other aspects of life: body, mind and senses. The principle factor behind balance in the body is balanced agni (digestive fire). The creation of healthy body tissue (dhatu) requires a burning digestive fire, or metabolic process. A strong agni is equally important in maintaining balance in the doshas and malas (metabolic impurities like urine, bowels and sweat).
Therefore, when digestion, assimilation and elimination are balanced, fat tissue and cholesterol will also be balanced. When the digestion is balanced and healthy, then the body produces the right amount of cholesterol, and so Ayurveda does not insist in lessening the production of cholesterol.
Imbalance in one’s body is usually because of three causes: mental, physical and environmental. Mental causes can include pressures at work or other emotional reasons like anger, worries, sorrow, and greed. Physical causes include eating too much, eating too little or eating unhealthy food. Eating irregular amounts at the irregular times, eating unhealthy while suffering from indigestion or constipation is also not recommended. Environmental causes include eating the wrong foods for the climate or season, as well as eating foods polluted with toxins.
The myth behind Ghee and Coconut
Fat always gets a bad name and saturated fats are known to increase cholesterol, heart diseases and cause weight gain. While ghee and coconut oil contain saturated fats, they are considered as healthy alternatives because of the immense health benefits they bring.
But fat is essential for the body. In fact health experts are known to recommend 50 % of saturated fats in one’s diet. These saturated fats promote brain health, healthy lungs, strong bones, a strong immune system and better cardiovascular health. Eating the right combination of saturated and unsaturated fats is important for proper nutrition and overall body function.
According to Ayurveda, a daily dose of ghee recommended for all. It is known to give clarity of mind and help in sound digestion. It is especially recommended for the young and the old, to build strength and immunity. It has cholesterol which helps in the rebuilding of the body. It helps keep the microbiome in the gut healthy promoting digestion. Ghee is also a good lubricant for the connective tissues increasing your flexibility.
Many Ayurvedic medicines are combined with ghee which helps preserve the medicine while also helping in easy absorption with the fat. The short chain butyrate acid found in ghee helps in protecting the intestinal tract and prevents inflammation, ulcers and cancers.
Coconut has zero cholesterol. Though it contains over 85% saturated fat, this fat contains MCT (medium chain triglycerides) which have been shown to increase HDL levels in the blood. Overall the effect of coconut oil is helpful in preventing heart disease. Ayurveda had recognized its potential in healing a variety of skin ailments and promoting healthy gums, teeth and hair. Many massage therapies use coconut oil as the base and it improves joint flexibility. It is also a good brain food and helps prevent and control epileptic seizures.
Ayurveda had always recognized the healthy benefits of both ghee and coconut oil. Both have been extensively used in Ayurvedic therapy. But like everything else, moderation is advised. Especially for the obese, these two ingredients must be consumed with care.