The importance of cholesterol in the menopause

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Menopause Advisor
@EileenDurward
Ask Eileen


21 August 2017

Read the full video transcript below

Today's topic

Hello and welcome to my weekly video blog. And today on "A.Vogel Talks Menopause," I'm going to be talking about cholesterol and how important it is in menopause, which is probably going to surprise you because normally all we hear in the press and everywhere is that cholesterol is bad news.

Most of us have levels that are far too high and it can cause all sorts of problems. But knowing what cholesterol is and knowing its role in the menopause might give you a few extra ideas of why we might need a little bit at this particular time.

What is cholesterol?

So what is cholesterol? Well, cholesterol is a type of fat that's found in all membranes, all cell membranes right throughout the body, and it's also found in your bloodstream. Now, cholesterol is mainly made by the liver from saturated fat that you get through your diet. 

What do you need cholesterol for?

Now, what do you need cholesterol for? Well, it's very important to make hormones with. Now, I'm not just talking about the sex hormones like your oestrogen, progesterone and your testosterone, but it's needed to make hormones for the thyroid, for your bones, for your pancreas.

It's very important to keep the right levels of hormones up in our body, which are needed for all sorts of different things. It helps to build and repair cell walls, so it's very important for maintaining our structure and our body in that way.

It's needed for brain function, very important in the menopause as we all know that we can end up with foggy brain and problems with our memory. It's also needed to help synthesis vitamin D, and vitamin D is vital in the menopause because we know that lower vitamin D levels in the menopause can cause a whole range of issues. And I have done a little blog on vitamin D, so if you want to know more from that side of it, then please do have a look. 

The liver also converts excess cholesterol into bile salts. Now, bile is very important for your digestion. It helps to break down your fats properly, and it also helps with peristalsis. Peristalsis is the way that your gut moves, the way it pushes food through the digestive system. And we know that in the menopause our digestion can really slow down a lot. So liver function and the production of bile is a really important one for keeping our digestion going in the menopause.

What's the problem with cholesterol?

Now, the problem with cholesterol there's…especially when we read in newspapers and magazines, is that too much can certainly be problematic for our general health. If you have too much bile, then it can build up, it can fire up your arteries, which can then lead to things like high blood pressure and which can then lead to things like heart attack so it is important to make sure that the cholesterol you're producing is in the right amount for you. 

Other factors that accompany with high cholesterol is too much saturated fat in the diets. We're always been told to watch things like fatty meats and cheeses and sausages and things. But you also need to look at hydrogenated fats because it's thought that they may be an issue, too. Hydrogenated fats tend to come in margarines.

So we're in a difficult situation here because we're not supposed to have a lot of margarine, we're not supposed to have a lot of butter, but, you know, preferably, the hydrogenated vegetable fats can be very bad for your health, so it's something I tend to not recommend is margarine at all. You can also watch with the amount of sugar that you have in your diet. If you have too much sugar in the diet, that can certainly be an issue.

Can high cholesterol be inherited?

High cholesterol can also be inherited. There are...some people will inherit high level that does need to be treated medically, and that's something that is not really something that you can manage on your own.

High-calorie diet

Now, a high-calorie diet as well can be a problem with cholesterol, purely because if you're eating too much sugar, too much simple carbohydrates, too much bread and pasta and things, that can end up being broken down and stored as fat as well. So that can have an accumulative effect, too.

Cholesterol balancing act

The interesting thing as far as the menopause goes, our cholesterol usually tends to rise a little bit in, I was going to say old age, but when we get a little bit older because our body's need for it increases. We need a little bit more cholesterol for brain function, to help with our joints, and to help with the producing bile. And interestingly enough, we have found that cholesterol will rise a little bit in the menopause to help with hormonal balance, and I think this is wonderful.

The body is really clever, it's going, "Oh, I haven't got so much hormones here. Let's see if we can make them from somewhere else." So your cholesterol tends to just go up a little bit. So a small rise in the menopause can be really beneficial to help you through the menopause, and for most women, interestingly enough, the level will fall as you go into the post-menopause. So your body has a good way of balancing itself.

What can you do?

Diet

Now, what can you do here to look after yourself here? Well, diet is really important, obviously. Watch what you're doing with your diet, with your saturated fats, with your Trans fats, and with your hydrogenated fats. So look at loads of fresh foods, fresh vegetables, really healthy pulses and grains can be really beneficial for you as well. Go for oily fish. These fish oils are wonderful for the menopause. They're great for your skin and for your brain, too. 

Don't smoke and exercise

Don't smoke. It can be really bad for cholesterol levels, so that's really something that if you can manage, if you do smoke, to try and get that out to help protect your cholesterol levels. And exercise as well is very important, too.

Eileen recommends...

Artichoke extract, which recent research* shows can be beneficial for cholesterol levels.

What else can affect your cholesterol levels in the menopause?

Now, just a few other things that can happen in the menopause, that can affect the cholesterol or the cholesterol can actually affect it, I talked earlier about the liver function. So the liver helps to produce cholesterol from the fats in your diet. We know that during the menopause, the liver can get really stressed.

And if the liver is really stressed, that might interfere with the production of bile, and again, this can affect your digestion. And bloating and nausea are two really common symptoms in the menopause, so this could be due to the fact that there's too much cholesterol, but it could also be to do with the fact that your liver is struggling a little bit here. 

Also, a low production of bile can affect the gallbladder, and sometimes some women will get a pain just around about here, just sort of below the ribs and before the belly button. If you are getting a continual pain, not something that comes and goes, but if you're in constant discomfort with a sly take or a pain in this area, then it's really important. Go and get that checked by your doctor because it could be issues with your gallbladder. 

Stress

Now, there's just one thing more that I would like to say here. Stress can be a huge factor for high cholesterol, and we know again in the menopause that stress and anxiety, number three symptom in the menopause, so trying to deal with stress in the menopause can be really helpful for controlling your cholesterol levels, too.

You may find that you need to go on statins, it's something that a lot of people in their 50s, their doctors tend to recommend that you go on to statins if your cholesterol is a little bit high. Just bear in mind that statins will lower your cholesterol levels considerably, but that may affect your hormonal control. If you've less cholesterol available, that could affect the hormones in the menopause and it could also affect your liver and your digestion in the menopause.

So just be aware. If you'd started to take statins and you've noticed these menopause-like symptoms creeping up, then maybe just discuss that with your doctor.

Our bodies are very wise

So I hope you find this interesting. You know, our bodies are very wise and sometimes things happen for a particular reason, especially in the menopause. So I look forward to seeing you next week for another A.Vogel Talks Menopause.

*Sahebkar A et al. Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Effects of Artichoke Extracts on Lipid Profile. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2017. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2017.1332572

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