Not all good, not all bad...

Low cholesterol levels may be good for the heart but can cause depression

Published: Sunday 31 October 1999

-- (Credit: akhilesh)cholesterol is much misunderstood as a compound. True, much of the wrong sort of fat-like substance can get deposited and inhibit blood flow. Yet, it forms the raw material for making hormones and acts as a carrier for fats. And a recent study has associated low cholesterol levels with severe depression. But in those who smoke or have high blood pressure, high levels of blood cholesterol creates heart and circulatory diseases.

Hence the hype about reducing cholesterol to 'healthy levels', though it is not easy. Merely cutting down on saturated fat-rich foods like meat can cut cholesterol only by 10 per cent, which may not be enough. Many high-risk people are given drugs to reduce cholesterol levels by 30 per cent. But this may be fraught with dangers.

Recent reports link low cholesterol levels with specific behaviour traits and require patients to learn new ways to deal with anger. "...people who behave in a hostile manner tend to have higher levels of both cholesterol and ldl (low density lipoprotein or bad cholesterol)," according to Peter Vitaliano, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Edward Suarez of the department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, usa , found that women between 18 and 27 years of age who had low cholesterol levels were twice as likely to suffer from serious depression compared to those with moderate to high cholesterol levels ( Psychosomatic Medicine , Vol 61 No 3).

Suarez is not certain whether lowering of cholesterol signals depression or anxiety: "The only conclusions... are that healthy individuals prone to depressive moods and anxiety exhibit low concentrations of lipids and lipoproteins." How does low cholesterol affect behaviour? It is hypothesised that ldl forms fatty plaques on arteries and also activates some sort of immune response. The immune response also leads to a drop in the levels of the hormone melatonin, which leads to depression. But every person with low cholesterol does not experience this immune response. Research has shown that people who bottle up negative emotions are more prone to developing cardiovascular diseases. One of the primary precipitating factors has also proven to be the blood fat pattern, especially cholesterol. Support also comes from recent studies on atherosclerosis (narrowing of arteries in legs) that is caused by blood vessel changes similar to those implicated in heart diseases which are linked to a hostile attitude.

Beatrice Golomb of the University of California in San Diego suggests that lower cholesterol may affect the production of serotonin, a brain chemical linked to mood. In a 1996 study, Barbara Ploeckinger of the University of Vienna found that women who had just given birth experienced a sudden drop in cholesterol levels.

Opinions on the psychological ramifications of low cholesterol are divided. Some say there is a correlation, others say it is merely a fluke. According to S Lori Brown, senior research scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Maryland, usa , the link between low cholesterol and low spirits remains unproven. Yet, the danger is quite evident. Women who had the steep falls in cholesterol levels were the most depressed. n

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