Low Cholesterol Levels Could Leave You Vulnerable To Infection

| April 23, 2014

While we are frequently warned about the perils of cholesterol, it should be borne in mind that cholesterol is an essential constituent of the body and a basic building block in several structures and substances including cell walls, key hormones and vitamin D. Another function that cholesterol appears to fulfil concerns immunity and protect against infections. Toxins made by bacteria have been shown to bind to cholesterol, effectively inactivating them. In one study, mice with genetically high LDL-cholesterol were injected with bacteria. Compared to mice with lower cholesterol levels, the ‘high cholesterol’ mice were less likely to die [1].

A recent study also supports the idea that cholesterol plays a positive role in immunity. Researchers found that in patients critically ill with an infection, those with higher cholesterol levels were significantly less likely to die [2].

Another recent study found similar results in individuals undergoing cardiac surgery [3]. Basically, what this research showed was that the higher someone’s cholesterol was, the lower their risk of succumbing to an infection after surgery. For those with the lowest cholesterol levels, the rate of infection approached 20 per cent. For those with the highest cholesterol levels, the rate of infection was zero.

These types of studies (known as ‘epidemiological’ or ‘observational’ evidence) do not prove that cholesterol is directly responsible for this benefit. However, the findings do at least support the idea that cholesterol might have some genuinely protective role.

Plus they back up other supportive evidence. In one study, 21 individuals with tuberculosis (TB) were treated with standard TB medication (four antibiotics taken in combination) over a period of 8 weeks [4]. Of the 21 participants, 10 were given a cholesterol-rich diet (800 mg of cholesterol a day – about the amount of cholesterol found in 5 medium-sized eggs). The rest of the study participants followed a diet containing just 250 mg of cholesterol each day.

After two weeks of treatment, 80 per cent of those eating a high-cholesterol diet were free of TB infection, compared to only 9 per cent of the others.

The apparent benefits of the diet may not have come from additional dietary cholesterol per se. The cholesterol came via enrichment of the diet with foods such as butter, beef, liver and egg yolk. It’s therefore possible that the benefits came from other nutritional elements found in these foods.

Overall, though, the evidence does seem to suggest that cholesterol has a beneficial effect on immunity. This may go some way to helping to explain the fact that higher cholesterol levels in later life have been associated with improved longevity.

Here's to a healthy heart

Dr John Briffa
Editor
for The Cholesterol Truth
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References:

1. Netera MG, et al. Low-density lipoprotein receptor-deficient mice are protected against lethal endotoxemia and severe Gram-negative infections. J Clin Invest 1996;97:1366–72.
2. Biller K, et al. Cholesterol Rather Than PCT or CRP Predicts Mortality in Patients With Infection. POST ACCEPTANCE, 10 April 2014
3. Lagrost L, et al. Low preoperative cholesterol level is a risk factor of sepsis and poor clinical outcome in patients undergoing cardiac surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass.
Crit Care Med. 2014;42(5):1065-73.
4. Perez-Guzman C, et al. A Cholesterol-Rich Diet Accelerates Bacteriologic Sterilization in Pulmonary Tuberculosis. Chest 2005;127(2):643-51

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