According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol is a silent condition with no signs or symptoms that affects around 71 million Americans.
This quote comes from an article summarizing a recently published study that concluded high cholesterol contributed to infertility. Upon investigation, the researchers simply noted that couples with high cholesterol took longer to get pregnant. Simple stuff.
This study came to my attention via none other than Martha Quinn, the former MTV VJ, who now hosts SiriusXM music channels. Yesterday morning, between 80’s songs, she decided to share the latest health “news” that high cholesterol causes infertility so if we want to hear the pitter patter of little feet we should grab a veggie burger or tofu at our Memorial Day BBQ…
I am very aware that the public perception and understanding of cholesterol is based off conventional wisdom, limited at best and not set upon a solid foundational knowledge of the human body but it still gets to me when someone with the public reach of a radio host shares information that, for a number of reasons, is more problematic than helpful. I’m giving her a hard time, of course, and probably unnecessarily, but in fact I like Martha quite a bit because she is very entertaining, seems like a nice person and knows a lot about 80s music. She was also just doing her job and trying to share some interesting (and maybe helpful) information however this is further example of why dissemination of health news through media is a problem, particularly when they just repeat a headline or synopsis. This seemingly innocent health note did three things that bother me: 1) continued the perception that high cholesterol is a disease or “silent condition”, 2) report that it causes things like infertility and other health problems and 3) claimed that you can fix the problem by eating veggie burgers or tofu, which in essence means not eating animals and/or saturated fat.
Hopefully by now we can almost all get on the same page that anything you hear resembling health news via the media should warrant considerable skepticism and if it peaks your interest, do you own research, find the actual study and see what it says. Even at that, health and nutrition science is very complicated so take any research for what it’s worth: a glimpse at a question or problem that probably needs a lot more research and is likely very limited in scope.
Additionally, the idea that something in health causes something else is a slippery slope and one we have to be very careful with. As we have found many times before it is extremely difficult to establish causality and even the best intentions leave us with the either the reverse of what is actually happening or a relationship that’s too complex to even try to find a causal link. Almost always, something deeper is going on or the current intellectual framing of the problem is skewed or sometimes, completely wrong. Regardless of how it is reported and/or considered, we truly are left with simply noting a relationship and hopefully pursuing deeper understanding of it.
Cholesterol Isn’t A Disease & Veggie Burgers Won’t Fix It
Without going into too much detail, since I’ve done that many times before, we need to stop thinking about high cholesterol as a disease or condition. Cholesterol is a vital part of optimal function, is extremely complicated and, most importantly, is not a disease or condition.
Cholesterol levels adapt to what the body needs and/or is going through. If anything you can look at cholesterol levels as symptoms or reflections of the body’s adaptation(s) to its environment.
Cholesterol levels change constantly and elevates for a reason, such as to fuel the stress response hormones, fight an infection or in response to a metabolism and energy drop. Sometimes it elevates to help repair damage, such as an injury or damage to your arteries. Most of the time it fluctuates for a myriad of potentional physiological regulatory processes, many of which we are still trying to grasp. Whatever the case, cholesterol levels are a reaction, not a disease.
So when a study like this cholesterol-fertility link comes about, the last thing we should think is that high cholesterol causes infertility. Does high cholesterol cause infertility or does infertility cause high cholesterol? Probably neither but closer to the latter. Human bodies that are responding to a stressful challenge or are not functionally optimally (often reflected by elevated cholesterol) are also not well prepared to procreate.
Certainly, looking at cholesterol as a disease that causes infertility leads to things like drug intervention to treat this silent condition to restore fertility. Most definitely, artificially lowering cholesterol in a body that’s trying to raise it will have a number of problems and won’t likely fix the underlying physiological or psychological problem, much less the infertility.
Martha Was Onto Something, Sort Of…
Although I am going to slightly praise her recommendation it comes with a caveat. The way to treat infertility is to make people healthier in general. It seemed like she was trying to say that if you choose the veggie burger or tofu over whatever others options are lined up at the BBQ, you’re making a healthier choice and therefore you’ll get healthier, which is good advice. Unfortunately it’s under the logic that: eat less animals/saturated fat = high cholesterol goes down = fertile. The idea that living a healthier lifestyle helps things like fertility is fantastic but doing it through the lens of cholesterol, veggie burgers and tofu is cause for concern. Not only do we not know if those dietary choices really have any impact on cholesterol, it misses the whole point because we shouldn’t be trying to manage/lower cholesterol. Plus, even if eating more vegetarian actually lowered your cholesterol, it doesn’t matter how often you choose tofu over a burger at BBQs if your body is overstressed and unhealthy. Conversely, many people would argue that choosing tofu or veggie burgers over real meat would make you less healthier and more infertile. Regardless of your stance on the whole food issue, the point is that treating the symptom (cholesterol) is probably a bad idea when treating the underlying cause (a stressed/ malfunctioning human) is likely to be a much more viable and universally beneficial objective.
The bottom line, once again, on cholesterol is this:
It is a substance like many others in the body that adapts with demand and environment. We see it elevated often in people with several different health issues but it’s likely just a symptom of those and not a cause of anything, particularly infertility.
Treat the health of the body, not the symptoms of its adaptations.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. I didn’t even want to tackle the whole LDL/bad cholesterol thing again because, well, it should be old news by now and I wanted to get this post out sometime this decade. 🙂