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Why does the brain need cholesterol?

by Dominique Vanier, B.Sc.H., M.Env.Sc., on 24 May 2017, Memory and concentration
cholesterol

Until recent years, cholesterol had one of the worst reputations in the food industry. Cholesterol, and fat in general, were thought to clog arteries and increase the risk of heart disease.

We now know that low-fat and low-cholesterol diets are a mainstream nutrition myth. Cholesterol is a component of every cell in the body and plays a role in how our cells signal to one another…

Without cholesterol, our cell membranes would be too fluid and too permeable, and function improperly.

It is also the structural precursor of steroidal hormones in the body, like testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and vitamin D. In essence, it is a fundamental nutrient for human health.

Cholesterol and Brain

One of the most dependent organs on cholesterol is the brain. Although the brain comprises about 3 percent of total body weight, one-quarter of the body’s cholesterol is found in the brain. It is the fattiest organ in the body, consisting of up to 60 percent fat. It is no surprise, then, that foods rich in fat – which also tend to contain cholesterol – also happen to be fuel for the brain.

Most of the cholesterol in the body is synthesized by the liver, with the remaining obtained via diet. While dietary fat is the building block for cholesterol production, the “type” of fat is important because it can encourage “good” or “bad” cholesterol production once metabolized by the body.

Good vs Bad Cholesterol

“Good” cholesterol, also known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL), is considered protective to the body because it acts as a scavenger by removing “bad” cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), out of the bloodstream and to the liver for recycling. For this reason, higher levels of HDL are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

High levels of “good” HDL cholesterol also play a significant role in cognitive health. Analysis of HDL cholesterol on mental function has consistently reported that higher levels help preserve mental function, especially in older populations.

Brain-healthy foods

Understanding which foods benefit cholesterol levels and brain health can sometimes be confusing. Below are some heart-healthy, brain-healthy foods and other food tips that encourage the production of good cholesterol:

  • Extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil contains omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats that are rich in anti-oxidants. Olive oil is easy to add to cooked veggies and salads, and virtually all types of foods. It should be consumed raw rather than cooked, since its properties change once it is heated over 200°C.
  • Fatty fish. Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are high in poly and monounsaturated fats, and are excellent sources of protein. They are also a great source of vitamin D, B vitamins, and selenium.
  • Flax and chia. Flax and chia are plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fibre and minerals. Fibre plays an important role in promoting higher HDL “good” levels while lowering LDL “bad” levels.
  • A food also high in omega-3 fatty acids, nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and pecans can positively impact cholesterol levels.
  • Beans and legumes. Beans are high in fibre, which promotes the elimination and excretion of LDL and total triglycerides from the body. Black beans, for example, are one of the richest sources of soluble fibre among legumes – a half-cup of cooked black beans contains about twice the amount of fibre as oats.
  • Omega-3 supplementation. Adding an omega-3 supplement to your vitamin regimen may be an option if you find it difficult to obtain enough healthy fats through your diet. VegOmega-3 is a 100% vegetarian-friendly source of omega-3 fatty acids derived from linseed oil, and also happens to be one of the smallest capsules on the market!
  • Work with your primary healthcare provider. If you have high cholesterol levels, or simply wish to maintain healthy cardiovascular and brain function, it is important to work with your doctor for a treatment plan that ensures optimal health.

References:
http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/cholesterol-the-mind-and-the-brain
http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.e8539
http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/how-its-made-cholesterol-production-in-your-body

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