Cholesterol-brain friend or foe?

“I’ve got a cholesterol of 6.4, is that bad?” is the type of question I often hear people ask.  If only there were a simple answer….

First things first-what is cholesterol anyway and why do we need it? Or do we need it at all?

Cholesterol is a waxy type of fat found within our cells. We have heard about cholesterol for decades and its role in our chances of suffering with heart disease. The first version of this story was that high cholesterol is bad and increases for having a heart attack. But over recent years we have learned that there is a lot more to the cholesterol question than interpreting a single number

Cholesterol is a heart thing right, so why does that matter for my brain?

Zoom quiz fact coming up. Your brain accounts for only 2% of your body’s weight but it contains 20%, yes 20%, of your cholesterol. So your brain cares about how much cholesterol you have circulating. 

I thought cholesterol was responsible for blockages in blood vessels?

Cholesterol is a multi tasker -in the brain, cholesterol is involved in a number of key processes.  These include contributing to communication channels between brain cells allowing neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin to get to work. Cholesterol also has an important job in the insulation of brain cells by forming the basis of myelin, a nerve cell coating that has a crucial role in keeping these cells running smoothly. Is if that wasn’t enough, cholesterol substance also forms the basis of some our hormones which are essential to overall health 

So should cholesterol be low or high, I’m confused?

Blood results only reveal a limited part of the puzzle. Whilst high cholesterol has been long associated with an increased risk of stroke or some types of dementia, there is more to it when we are considering brain health. With regard to our brains, studies have shown that having cholesterol on the higher side of normal may actually improve cognitive performance in some populations in later life. But the key is understanding that not all cholesterol is equal so we have to think more about what we eat, specifically in regards to both fat and sugar intake. 

The F word

Fats act as a source of energy and also are involved in forming building blocks of brain cells. Eating fat is important for the health of your brain. But before you order another takeaway, remember that not all fats are equal. Trans fats- the types of fat that are found in processed foods- are the opposite of brain friendly fats. It can be hard to avoid trans fats totally as they creep into many foods that we have in a packet in our cupboards as well as the more obvious sources such as deep fried foods.

So should I be eating fat or not? 

Our brains thrive on healthy fats. Especially growing brains, studies have shown that pregnant women who eat more fish and have higher levels of so-called long chain omega 3 have offspring with higher verbal IQs. Foods rich in omega 3 fats have also been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. Rather than getting fixed on numbers, thinking about how we can increase our intake of healthy omega 3s, reduce intake of transfats and keeping sugar filled processed food to a minimum is essential to looking after our brain health at all stages of life. 

Brain healthy sources of fat include avocados, wild salmon, nuts and seeds.

Keep Well

Dr Clara Russell