The first marker, LDL cholesterol, is probably nothing more than a crude approximation of particle number. But LDL particle number and size/density are related to something else, that probably actually causes atherosclerosis rather than simply being associated with it: oxidized LDL (oxLDL).
oxLDL is formed when the lipids in LDL particles react with oxygen and break down. This happens specifically to the unsaturated fats in LDL, because saturated fats, by their chemical nature, are very resistant to oxidative damage. Polyunsaturated fats are much more susceptible to oxidative damage than saturated or monounsaturated fats. Linoleic acid (the omega-6 fatty acid found abundantly in industrial seed oils) is the main polyunsaturated fatty acid in LDL.
LDL is packaged with antioxidants in the liver, primarily vitamin E and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), to prevent its oxidation*. However, the more time it spends in the blood, the more likely it is to exhaust its antioxidant store and become oxidized. Also, the smaller the LDL particle, the more likely it is to become trapped in the vessel wall and become oxidized there.
Oxidized LDL Correlates Tightly with Cardiac Risk
oxLDL has turned out to be a very sensitive marker of cardiac risk, surpassing traditional markers like LDL, HDL, and triglycerides in most studies to date. Since the discovery of sensitive assays that detect oxidized LDL drawn directly from patient blood, a number of studies have been published supporting its ability to detect atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), heart attack risk and even the metabolic syndrome.
Holovet and colleagues published a study comparing the ability of oxLDL and a traditional risk factor assessment to detect coronary artery disease. The traditional method is called the Global Risk Factor Assessment Score (GRAS), and includes age, total cholesterol, HDL, blood pressure, diabetes and smoking status. It's similar to the commonly used Framingham risk score (which, interestingly enough, doesn't include LDL).
GRAS was able to correctly differentiate a healthy person from a person with coronary artery disease 49% of the time, while oxLDL was correct 82% of the time. Thus, oxLDL by itself was far more accurate than a whole battery of traditional cholesterol and cardiac markers. Coronary patients had more than twice the level of circulating oxLDL than the healthy comparison group.
In a large prospective study by Meisinger and colleagues, participants with high oxLDL had a 4.25 higher risk of heart attack than patients with lower oxLDL. oxLDL blew away all other blood lipid markers by nearly a factor of two. From the abstract:
Plasma oxLDL was the strongest predictor of CHD events compared with a conventional lipoprotein profile and other traditional risk factors for CHD.Oxidized LDL Makes Sense
It's time to cross the threshold from markers of heart attack risk to causes of atherosclerosis. Regular, non-oxidized LDL has few properties that would make it a suspect in atherosclerosis. It's just a little particle carrying cholesterol and fats from the liver to other organs. As soon as it oxidizes, however, it becomes pro-inflammatory, immunogenic, damaging to the vessel wall, and most importantly, capable of transforming immune cells called macrophages into foam cells, a major constituent of arterial plaque.
Researchers have been interested in the plaque-generating properties of oxLDL for over three decades, and quite a bit of data have accumulated. They've identified cellular receptors that allow macrophages to ingest oxLDL (CD36 and SR-A). These receptors are specific for oxLDL and do not recognize normal LDL to a significant degree. Mice whose macrophages lack either of these two receptors have the same amount of circulating LDL as normal mice, yet have 60 to 70 percent less atherosclerosis when fed a plaque-forming diet (1, 2). Shorter-term studies have not always been consistent however, suggesting that there are alternative mechanisms. I'll expand on this more later.
Another line of evidence comes from the ability of LDL-borne antioxidants to prevent atherosclerosis in animal models. The powerful synthetic antioxidant probucol greatly reduces atherosclerosis in a number of animal models. It also reduces the extremely high cholesterol rodents and herbivorous animals get when they eat a high-cholesterol "atherogenic diet", but several studies have concluded that the majority of probucol's effect is due to its antioxidant ability rather than its ability to reduce cholesterol (ref).
Vitamin E and CoQ10 are two other LDL-borne antioxidants that can reduce atherosclerosis in animal models, particularly in combination with one another. Vitamin E alone is not as effective, and in some studies totally ineffective, which is one possible explanation for the equivocal results of vitamin E cardiovascular trials in humans. The most effective combination of antioxidants is probably the one provided by a nutrient-dense diet.
Multiple lines of evidence suggest that oxidized LDL plays a dominant role in atherosclerosis. Not only is it associated with cardiovascular risk, there's also a large body of evidence suggesting it actually directly contributes to it. In the next post, I'll describe how you can modify your level of oxidized LDL using diet.
* People often think of colorful fruits and vegetables when they think of antioxidants, but vitamin E and CoQ10 are found in both plant and animal foods. Fruits and vegetables are generally not good sources of these fat-soluble antioxidants. Good sources include organ meats, nuts, pastured butter, avocados and red palm oil. The body also manufactures CoQ10 itself.