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Is Too Little Cholesterol Bad For You?

Low cholesterol levelsmay
raise the risk of depression and suicide.

By now even the most reclusive of hermits is probably aware of the link between heart disease and high cholesterol levels. But having too little of the fatlike substance may have its drawbacks, too. Studies suggest that people with low levels of cholesterol are at increased risk for depression.

Some years ago scientists discovered that people with low cholesterol seem to be more likely to commit suicide. That finding led researchers to wonder if depression might also be connected with cholesterol levels. A 1993 study, in fact, found just such an association, at least for men over age 70. But another group of scientists -- also studying elderly men -- saw no such effect.

Researchers at the University of Kuwait have linked low cholesterol levels to depression in both men and women, and in all age groups. Studying 100 depressed individuals being treated at Kuwait's only psychiatric hospital, pathologist Samuel Olusi, M.D., and psychiatrist Abdullahi Fido, M.D., found that the patients had lower levels of cholesterol in their blood than did the nondepressed controls. (Incidentally, eating cholesterol-rich foods doesn't raise our cholesterol levels very much; saturated fats, from which our bodies manufacture cholesterol, are a greater contributor to the problem.)

Because cholesterol may be an important component of brain cell membranes, it's possible that a lack of the substance reduces neurons' ability to process serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. This malfunction, in turn, could contribute to depression. However, Olusi and Fido note that "our study did not show that lowering serum cholesterol causes depression." It's possible that depression changes a person's eating habits, so that his or her cholesterol levels fall after the illness sets in. The verdict then: The cholesterol-depression link remains intriguing but still not settled.