Cholesterol and MS – An Unlikely Pair

Most of us have grown up with the message that cholesterol is the enemy. That this devilish fatty substance circulates in our blood, furring arteries, and causing heart disease. Why else would we banish tasty foods like butter and brie from our fridges and replace them with low-fat alternatives? Seriously, why? Why? WHY?!

And it’s not just about our hearts. If you have MS, you may be aware that cholesterol is also associated with an increased risk of brain lesions . But here’s the thing – researchers have discovered that not all cholesterol is bad. It turns out there are two types of the stuff; and while low density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol has been shown to be detrimental to health, high density lipoprotein’, or HDL, actually plays a positive role in the body .

For starters, HDL prevents excess LDL cholesterol from sticking to the walls of your arteries, reducing risk of heart disease . But another important role it plays, and one that has only recently discovered by experts, is to protect the blood brain barrier (BBB) that prevents harmful substances from entering the brain and spinal cord . In other words, HDL may actually protect the brain from (some of the) the damage caused by MS . Which, incidentally, is exactly how some MS drugs work – and why the findings of a recent study conducted by scientists in New York and Prague are so exciting.

After monitoring 154 patients with MS for four years from disease onset, researchers discovered that those with the highest levels of HDL cholesterol in their blood had fewer markers for inflammation in their cerebrospinal fluid than those with lower levels of the good cholesterol. The presence of HDL appeared to protect the blood brain barrier (BBB), preventing inflammatory compounds from entering the brain and causing damage .

So what does this mean for anyone with MS? Should you start coating everything in butter and tucking into the brie?

Well, as with most things, it’s all about balance. Aim to eat a healthy, varied diet that contains unsaturated fats like oily fish (salmon, mackerel and fresh tuna), avocados, nut, seeds, olive oil – and dairy products like yoghurt and cheese in moderation (health guidelines state that no more than 11% of your daily calorie intake should come from saturated fat ). That’s not to say that all fats are back on the menu – deep fried and processed foods tend to contain trans fats that can raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol, so these are best avoided. Sorry, doughnut lovers.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to selectively raise HDL . Even if you’re not a fan of fish, an omega-3 supplement could be one option. Something to discuss with your doctor, perhaps.

There might be even a good excuse for a glass of wine with your dinner, as there’s evidence that moderate alcohol intake can boost HDL levels , however it’s important not to exceed 14 units a week, as doing so increases the risk of other health issues .

However it’s not just your diet that can affect your lipid profile . Studies have found that smoking raises levels of harmful LDL in the blood, for example, while causing levels of HDL to drop . Another good reason to quit.

One habit that will benefit your lipid profile, however, is exercise. There’s a mountain of evidence that regular workouts boost levels of HDL cholesterol while reducing LDL . We’re not talking running marathons – even just 60 minutes of physical activity a week can have a positive effect .

So there we have it. Not only is cholesterol no longer the bad guy – the right kind could make a big difference to your MS symptoms. Who knew?

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