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Whilst harmful at elevated levels, cholesterol, contributes to many biological functions. The body manufactures cholesterol in the liver from the foods we eat. It is a necessary lipid is used as a building component for all the body's cells. Anyone who consumes a significant amount of fat, bodybuilders included, runs the risk of increasing their cholesterol to harmful levels. Elevated cholesterol levels can be fatal, with effects including heart disease and stroke.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance, called a lipid, produced in the liver primarily and also comes from the foods we eat. Cholesterol circulates in the blood and is used as a building product for all the body's cells. Cholesterol is found in high concentrations in muscle, the brain and in many sex hormones. Cholesterol is necessary, as it plays an important role in cellular health. It is packaged in special transporters called lipoproteins such as low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). When presented in the wrong ratios, and as a high total cholesterol count, they can cause significant cardiovascular problems.

Cholesterol & Bodybuilding

Cholesterol is particularly important to bodybuilders, as it is a precursor to all steroid hormones, including testosterone, estrogen and cortisol. It is used for brain function and in the liver is converted into bile acids which are responsible for digesting fat and helping in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Testosterone as many of you know is an anabolic hormone able to increase our muscles ability to grow. Vitamin A is important in sexual reproduction but also important in helping with growth hormone secretion.1 A lack of vitamin D has been shown to lead to muscular weakness.2

Cholesterol's Harmful Effects

A significant amount of deaths are attributed to raised cholesterol and lipid levels. Low levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and high levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol are blamed. In the wrong ratios and amounts, these can cause hardening of the arteries, formed as a result of high LDL activity.

HDL & LDL Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is considered a good lipoprotein as it helps to transport cholesterol away from cells and into the liver to be excreted, whilst LDL cholesterol (bad) carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells and can be lodged in arteries, where it forms plaque and covers the arterial walls. The National Cholesterol Education Program along with the American Heart Foundation3 suggests that our HDL levels to be >1mmol/L for overall health benefits while our LDL levels should be <2.6mmol/L. A simple blood test can easily help you find your levels of HDL and LDL so you can do something about them. Exercise has been shown to be able to increase HDL levels, while a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, unrefined wholegrain carbohydrates, soluble fibre, plant sterols, legumes such as soy and nuts has been shown to be helpful in reducing LDL levels. A diet low in saturated fats, trans fats and alcohol have also been shown to help.4

High Cholesterol Symptoms

The symptoms of high cholesterol stem from the diminished blood flow and include chest pain and leg pain when walking. However, it is important to note that plaque builds up over a long period of time. By the time you feel the symptoms described above, the situation may be very critical and seeking medical attention is crucial. The best recommendation is to avoid being too late by following a healthy diet and exercise regimen.

Bodybuilding Supplements For Cholesterol

  • Vitamin-E5 which has a strong antioxidant action, and may be able to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, causing them to form plaque. 
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids4 found principally in fish oils have been shown to inhibit inflammation, prevent blood clotting, and lower triglyceride levels. 
  • Green Tea’s6 phytochemicals (polyphenols) and antioxidant properties have been researched in recent years and has been shown to improve lipid metabolism and possibly decrease the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
  • Plant Sterol Esters4 can inhibit the absorption of LDL cholesterol from the intestines, thus hastening its excretion.
  • Soy Protein’s4 estrogen like effects from the isoflavones component can help to reduce the thickening of artery walls. 
  • Niacin and Nicotinic Acid (Vitamin B3)7 has been shown in a recent meta-analyses to reduce atherosclerosis or plaque progression. The proposed mechanism by which niacin has been able to do this is by its ability  to increase HDL particle numbers and its subsequent reductions in LDL particle numbers. 
  • Low levels of Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B9 (Folate) have been shown to result in decreased levels of the heart-damaging homocysteine8 , which increases the risk of hardened artery walls and coronary heart disease. Supplementation of these important vitamins to prevent deficiency and the possible long term heart effects may be beneficial

Cholesterol For Health & Bodybuilding

Cholesterol is a complex and important substance, responsible for a wide range of functions in the body, and without it, we would not survive. Cholesterol must be present in the right amount and ratios for it to be beneficial. By being aware of new research, taking into consideration the above tips for reducing cholesterol and putting them into practice, you can help actively control your cholesterol levels and live a healthier and longer life.

1.  Essentials of Human Nutrition 3rd Ed. Jim Mann and A Stewart Truswell. Oxford University Press 2008. p. 166-168
2.  Venning G. 'Recent developments in vitamin D deficiency and muscle weakness among elderly people.' BMJ 2005; 330: 524
3.  American Heart Foundation and NCEP. '"Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III) Executive Summary". May 2001

4  Manual of Dietetic Practice 4th Ed. Briony Thoma and Jacki Bishop. Blackwell Publishing 2007, p. 620-622
5. National Institute of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin E. Accessed on 15th April 2011

6. Sasazuki S, Kodama H, Yoshimasu K et al. Relation between green tea consumption and the severity of coronary atherosclerosis among Japanese men and women. Ann Epidemiol. 2000;10:401-408
7. Bruckert E, Labreuche J, Amarenco P. 'Meta-analysis of the effect of nicotinic acid alone or in combination on cardiovascular events and atherosclerosis.' Atherosclerosis. 2010 Jun;210(2):353-61.
8. Antoniades C et al. 'Homocysteine and coronary atherosclerosis: from folate fortification to the recent clinical trials.' European Heart Journal (2009) 30, 6–15.
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