Cholesterol and Cancer: What’s the Link?

For roughly 30% of U.S. adults, their cholesterol goes well beyond the healthy range. 

The total blood cholesterol often exceeds 200 mg/dL. And the prevalence of heart disease reflects this. 

Based on recent reports, there is a 39% prevalence of diagnosed cardiovascular conditions in the country. 

The high cholesterol doesn’t really show up with regular signs. 

The only way to know for sure if you’ve got healthy cholesterol is to get it checked. 

The question is, what does cholesterol have to do with cancer risk? Will it aggravate the cancer cell state as it does with heart health? 

Here is a clear outline of the link between cholesterol and cancer. 

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance. Although it has a bad rep, it’s not inherently “bad.” The human body requires cholesterol to create cells, hormones, and vitamins. However, high cholesterol poses a problem.

The blood carries this crucial type of fat. More precisely, the lipoproteins. These lipoproteins feature:

  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) – a primary lipoprotein referred to as the “good” cholesterol. 

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) – another primary lipoprotein referred to as the “bad” one. 

  • VLDL (very-low-density lipoprotein) – particles in the blood responsible for transporting triglycerides. 

There are two sources of cholesterol – cholesterol biosynthesis and dietary intake. The first one is the liver. This organ makes most of the HDL cholesterol and overall cholesterol the body needs. Roughly 3/4 of the cholesterol is made in the liver.

While the rest comes from the food you consume like dairy, poultry, meat, and so on. These are what we call sources of dietary cholesterol. That’s why countless factors, whether that is a lifestyle, excess weight, genes, or diet, can impact your blood cholesterol level. 

The LDLR gene offers instructions for creating the low-density lipoprotein. A spike in LDL causes cholesterol accumulation in macrophages and immune cells. That’s why it can promote an inflammatory response.

Each cell needs cholesterol. Healthy cholesterol is beneficial for the layers since they act as a gatekeeper for the cells. To assess your cancer risk, it can be a good idea to look into your cholesterol metabolism. 

Normal Cholesterol Levels for Men and Women

Countless factors influence the cholesterol metabolism or what the lipid targets should be. That’s why it’s best to talk to a doctor when you do a cholesterol test. 

Experts are well-versed in cholesterol synthesis. They will help you interpret and understand the results and maintain low cholesterol. 

They can advise you not just on how to keep the high cholesterol in check but also curb your heart disease risk. To get a general perspective of your lipid/cholesterol targets, take a look at the list below. 

These are cholesterol levels that are within a normal range. Such as:

  • Triglycerides (TG): < 2.0 mmol/L

  • HDL: > 1.0mmol/L

  • LDL: < 2.0 mmol/L (for overall population) | low LDL cholesterol or < 1.8mmol/L (for high-risk patients) 

  • Total Cholesterol: <5.5 mmol/L (for overall population) | < 4.0 mmol/L (for high-risk patients) 

Statin meds are cholesterol-lowering drugs meant to block the action of the liver enzyme in charge of creating cholesterol. Statin therapy is so prevalent in the United States that over 35 million people take them. 

Cancer patients can develop plaque built-up in the arteries without an adequate cholesterol-lowering drug. Statin meds are here to keep the cholesterol from hardening or narrowing the arteries. Thus, keeping the cholesterol metabolism stable. 

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Is there a link between cholesterol and cancer?

Studies don’t show a clear connection between cancer risk and dietary cholesterol. Although dietary cholesterol might not necessarily make the body more susceptible to cancer, a dietary regimen packed with cholesterol typically includes large quantities of foods that can affect your overall cancer risk. 

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, consuming red meats in large quantities amplifies the colorectal cancer risk. Processed foods are also linked to colorectal cancer, alongside diets high in calcium.

On the other hand, pastries and other foods full of calories and saturated fat make you pile a few extra pounds. Being overweight can drastically impact serum cholesterol levels and cancer cell state. 

It blunts the response to changes in the type of fats you consume. Thus increasing the LDL cholesterol the liver creates. Plus, it reduces the clearance of LDL from the blood. 

So, individuals with excess body fat are more susceptible to breast cancer after menopause, including kidney, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer. 

We know that each cancer cell is very sensitive to blockage of cholesterol esterification. But, more data in cancer patients is necessary to evaluate the actual risk of ovarian cancer, lung cancer, and gastric cancer due to unstable cholesterol levels.

What Does Research Say?

To better understand the link between cholesterol and cancer, it’s important to look at some of the research that talks about cholesterol uptake and its impact on tumor growth. 

The role cholesterol plays in cancer development and the possibility of therapeutically targeting cholesterol homeostasis remains controversial. 

Many studies report a link between cholesterol or statin use and pancreatic cancer cells. While others suggest there isn’t one. Cholesterol is often high in cancer cells, like in some patients with breast cancer. But, what that means is still up for debate. 

For instance, a 10 mg/dL spike in cholesterol was linked with a 9% rise in prostate cancer recurrence. Further data indicate that meds for curbing cholesterol were linked with a reduced risk of breast cancer and endometrial cancer.

Based on 2019 reports, a spike in cholesterol is associated with elevated breast cancer risk. It is also associated with the risk of developing prostate cancer, colon cancer, testicular cancer, and rectal cancer. 

Studies from the University of California identified a previously unknown molecular mechanism involving cholesterol that could trigger tumor growth in the intestines. A jump in cholesterol amplified cell proliferation and contributed to cancer progression. This was done through a diet high in cholesterol. 

Conclusion

Cholesterol has complex biology, and so does cancer prevention. Researchers are currently debating whether its role can affect breast cancer and the development of other types of cancer. 

Although not conclusive, it seems that cholesterol does have some involvement in cancer development. So, it’s a good idea to watch the cholesterol intake for better intracellular cholesterol control. Healthy eating and stable lipid targets can set cancer patients on the right track. 

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Sources

  1. Kuzu, O., Noory, M., & Robertson, G. (2016). The Role of Cholesterol in Cancer. Cancer Research, 76(8), 2063-2070. https://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/76/8/2063
  2. Ding X, Zhang W, Li S, Yang H. The role of cholesterol metabolism in cancer. Am J Cancer Res. 2019;9(2):219-227. Published 2019 Feb 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6405981/

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