My Battle With High Cholesterol and What I’m Doing About It

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To read an update to this post, please check out UPDATE: My Battle With High Cholesterol and How I Avoided Statins.

I’ve been a little quiet around social media this week, in fact I’ve been quite quiet in real life, too. I got some information a couple of weeks ago that sparked something of a paleo crisis for me and caused me to do a lot of thinking.

Cholesterol up, way up.

Every other year I get my cholesterol checked. Not for fun but because I believe that information is power and in light of the fact that three of my grandparents died of heart disease, two of them not much older than I am now, I want to be as informed as I can be in order to make good decisions should it become necessary.

Up until now, my test results were always OK although I’d been watching my LDL (bad cholesterol) jump around in the high-normal area. This was my first test since going paleo and I was very curious to see what my results would be given that the lifestyle and especially diet has a reputation for reducing cholesterol blood markers.

LDL sky-rocketed.

You never want to see a comment from your doctor that starts with ‘Wow!’ and ends with ‘ASAP.’ My cholesterol number was through the roof. Way, way too high. My doctor told me to make an appointment as soon as possible to discuss treatment and I knew from past experience that this would involve me leaving her office with a script, depression and a feeling that I’d just failed to communicate effectively with someone who speaks a different language.

Cholesterol, Total 327 <200 mg/dL
Triglyceride, Ser/Plas <20 <150 mg/dL
HDL Cholesterol 100 >40 mg/dL
Direct LDL Chol 205 <130 mg/dL
Cholesterol/HDL Ratio 3.3 <5 ratio
Non-HDL Chol, Calc 227 <160 mg/dL
High Sensitivity CRP 0.5 <3.0 mg/L

How could this be?

I am a 48 year-old woman, I eat no processed food, sugar, or grains, I sleep well, I am not chronically stressed nor am I dealing with any major life stressor. I weigh 125lbs. Was I really about to be put on statins? Possibly for the rest of my life? The idea appalled me.

But, wait.

As I studied my results, I noticed something very weird, my HDL (good cholesterol) was fantastic! And if my LDL was through the roof, my triglycerides were through the floor. And that’s a good thing. Vitamin D levels, fasting blood sugar, C-reactive protein, blood pressure  – all great. There was just that LDL thing pushing my cholesterol number over the top. And my GP into a panic.

Worshipping at the altar of Google.

I started doing some research. I read an article on cholesterol at Marks Daily Apple. And a podcast transcript concerning a very similar case to mine over at Robb Wolf. I found someone with a similar test profile who was going for further testing. And then I read this one on the sophistication (or not) of more advanced cholesterol testing. The information ruminated in my mind all week.

Could I be a paleo blogger on statins?

I would do anything to avoid that, honestly. Anything. But I am also not prepared to play with fire. If there is a problem, it needs to be addressed. Just not with drugs as a first resort. So what is my plan of action to attempt to avoid that?

A new doctor.

I haven’t made an appointment to see my original doctor but I have found a new one. One who was familiar with the paleo diet and not inclined to fill out a script for Lipitor as a reflex reaction.

I put a little video together describing the threads that came together to find my paleo doctor and what I learned from that process.

I’ve had a repeat test to check the first wasn’t an anomaly (it wasn’t) so now I will have another round of testing to see if we can further clarify the situation. Sadly, cholesterol testing is very imperfect and I will not get a complete picture of the situation purely from that so I have other plans.

Deepen my commitment to paleo.

This might seem counter-intuitive given that my cholesterol situation has worsened (at least on paper) since I adopted this lifestyle. In the past, my response to finding my dietary experiments were not working would be to throw out whatever it was I’d put in place to address my problem. And eat sugar.

But paleo isn’t an experiment. It makes total sense to me from a scientific, evolutionary and anthropological standpoint. I am not throwing it out, nor have I eaten any sugar. And I am not about to go back to the standard American diet. Instead I’m going to tweak how I apply paleo principles. As Mark Sisson described to me in a recent email about the future of paleo: “I see it growing in scope. Right now, you have high-carbers, near-fruitarians, raw-foodists, and everyone else aligning themselves under the ancestral or Primal or paleo name, putting together their diets according to similar principles.” I’m going to be one of those people.

More fish, more grass-fed beef and chicken

For a while now I’ve been thinking of adding more fish into my diet. Currently, I eat it about once a week. I don’t particularly like it, it is expensive and more delicate to cook so I’ve resisted this step. But I do feel better when I eat it. I take fish oil capsules to give my Omega 3’s a boost but as we absorb nutrients from our food better than via supplements, eating more of the real thing seems a smart thing to do.

I’ve been a bit wonky on beef, not always eating grass-fed because of the cost so I will be cleaner on that and I will lower the amount of beef in my diet in favor of fish and chicken. My grocery bill is higher because of these decisions but as I’ve said before, it is important to bet money on our health. We can pay our grocer or we can pay our doctor. I choose grocer.

Treat my leaky gut

My cholesterol news this week was further compounded by the fact that I came to the realization that I had a leaky gut. I’ve been on the autoimmune protocol for paleo for several months and had been adding back in the foods (or perhaps more truthfully, not resisting them as well ;-).) As I did so, all my symptoms returned! Pain, sleepiness, itchy eyes, restless legs, I even got a bout of interstitial cystitis this week right after telling someone that paleo had helped so much with it!

Being soooo sensitive to even supposedly healthy foods like blueberries gave me pause. I’ve read about leaky gut for years but never seen it as applying to me. It wasn’t until I got well and then got sick again that I realized I had to face up to it. Still, I resisted.

I read a few websites and the leaky gut series of posts by Paleo Mom on Paleo Parents. Chris Kresser talks a lot about fermented foods but they don’t sound very tasty to me and the idea of growing my own yogurt cultures has always seemed like a fantastic opportunity to poison myself with unhygienic kitchen experiments. In the podcast I mention above, Robb Wolf talks about the importance of reducing systemic inflammation resulting from ingesting foods that irritate the gut lining as a way to help high cholesterol issues and avoid statins. But it was after reading Dean’s book, Make Shift Happen, and specifically the shift on resistance, the penny dropped. I needed to shift myself. Literally.

So I’m also going to embark upon the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) protocol. I have ordered the book, a step-by-step guide, bought some sauerkraut and will be working on the introductory phase of the diet over the next few weeks.

Less time spent at my keyboard.

GAPS can be done entirely in accordance with paleo principles but it takes some effort. It will take more time than I am used to spending on food especially in the beginning. But as Edward Stanley said: “Those who think they have no time for healthy eating, will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” I’ve already spent enough time being ill. Time to switch it up. That may mean fewer blog posts while I concentrate elsewhere but I will come back with updates on my progress. And I aim to continue a once a week schedule. I might just slip here and there so bear with me.

So that’s been my week. I am clearly still a work-in-progress but using all the resources at my finger-tips, a proactive state of mind and a little bit of luck, I have a good plan to address these bumps in the road on my way to great health. Onward and upward!

What proactive actions do you take when you get some negative feedback on your journey to good health? Do you have any experience with high cholesterol or the GAPS diet? Tell me in the comments!



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Alison Golden writes on the topic of paleo over at Paleo/NonPaleo. She aims to share ideas, inspire and motivate readers by teaching them how to live paleo in a non-paleo world. She is also the author of the bestselling book, The Modern, No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo, a unique tool that gives the reader hundreds of strategies to navigate the learning process to successful paleo living.

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