While doctors typically encourage patients at risk for developing heart disease to maintain low cholesterol, there is some evidence that health problems can develop for people with too low cholesterol. Various studies have found links between people with extremely low levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and increased risks for cancer, stroke, depression, and premature birth. Some of these increased risks need to be verified through continued study, but the body does seem to require a minimal level of LDL for optimal function.
Too low cholesterol has been correlated with increased risks of cancer. Scientists studying the effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs, or statin drugs, noticed a slightly higher rate of cancer in patients who were taking those drugs than patients in the general population. It is not entirely clear if the drop in LDL levels is the cause of the cancer or if there is another factor increasing patients’ chances of getting this disease.
Also undetermined is whether too low cholesterol causes hemorrhagic strokes at higher rates. A few studies have indicated that low levels of LDL lead to a higher risk for stroke. Other studies have contradicted this claim. These studies argue that the subjects who had strokes were statin users, and the increased risk for stroke was due to a problem with the drug, not the fact that the patients levels of LDL were plummeting.
More concrete ties have been made between too low cholesterol and mental health issues. Low levels of cholesterol in the blood seem to affect the brain’s ability to produce serotonin, the hormone that helps humans to feel happy. Studies have measured the levels of cholesterol and serotonin in patients who are suffer from bipolar disorder and depressed patients who have attempted suicide or committed other harmful acts against themselves. Most of these studies have shown a link between those behaviors and low levels of cholesterol. Not all studies have been able to support this data, however, so the relationship that exists between too low cholesterol, serotonin production, and mood disorders must be complicated.
Finally, women who have too low cholesterol while pregnant will see their risks for premature births and low birth rates increase. Cholesterol is important to the development of the placenta and the fetal brain. Recommended levels of overall cholesterol in the body shouldn’t exceed 200 mg/dL, but a lower limit also exists. Women who experienced premature birth in this study had levels lower than 159 mg/dL.
For people who are concerned about having insufficient levels of cholesterol, the target level lies between 160 mg/dL and 200 mg/dL with no more than half of that LDL. LDL levels should not exceed 100 mg/dL. A healthy diet and regular exercise can help people maintain healthy levels of cholesterol.