Hey, kids. Let’s have fun with building blocks!

Legos are building blocks for kids. 

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. And when I say protein I mean protein from foods like chicken, beef, and fish and proteins that comprise parts of our body like muscles, hair, nails, and skin. 

Fatty acids are another type of building block. They form the fat in our bodies, and yes, just like protein, the fat in dietary fat. 

Cholesterol: A Hormonal Building Block Powerhouse

But did you know that cholesterol is also a building block? 

Nope, it’s not a building block of a heart attack. For decades, cholesterol has been treated as a dietary devil, blamed directly for cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes. But about a decade ago, 2014 to be exact, nutrition policymakers and medical experts did an about-face. 

The scientific advisory panel on the Dietary Guidelines for America—the same group of so-called “experts” who have brought you the ridiculously unhealthy food pyramid with its 6-11 suggested daily servings of grains—determined that cholesterol is no longer considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption. Or as Harvard Health translated: don’t worry about the amount of cholesterol in food. 

Nonetheless, in 2019, 92 million people were prescribed cholesterol-lowering statins in the U.S. Some people need statins and I do prescribe them for my patients. (I’m a Nurse Practitioner and functional medicine therapist.) Why prescribe statins if cholesterol is something most of us don’t need to worry about?

The answer is that genetics is more of a driving factor behind high cholesterol levels than food. For those with a family history of heart disease, statins can prevent premature death. But that doesn’t deny the fact that there are lots of people who are unnecessarily prescribed statin drugs. And for perimenopausal and postmenopausal women, taking statins can result in suboptimal hormonal levels. 

This brings me back to building blocks. You see, cholesterol is a precursor to a very important hormone, pregnenolone. 

What is Pregnenolone? 

It’s a steroid hormone. Not steroids that give bodybuilders abnormally huge muscles. Steroid hormones come from cholesterol. The sex hormones—testosterone, estrogen and progesterone—are steroid hormones. Pregnenolone is the building block (aka, precursor) of sex hormones. So looking at cholesterol as a bad thing is wrong. Without cholesterol, you’d pretty much be dead. Not only wouldn’t you have enough sex hormones for your body to properly function, your cell membranes (the walls of the cell) would be as weak as structurally sound as jelly. That’s an important fact because the average human has about 30-some trillion cells. 

But there’s more to pregnenolone than making sex hormones. It also is the building block of the stress hormone, cortisol as well as aldosterone. “Aldo” regulates sodium and potassium levels in the kidney. 

So you see why lowering your cholesterol as much as possible might not be good for you. In fact, in one study of over 12,000 people from Japan, low cholesterol was associated with a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and cancer.  

Again, I don’t want to give the impression that statin drugs are bad. I can’t emphasize enough that they are absolutely necessary for certain people with a family history of heart disease. But you can see why prescribing statins just to get cholesterol levels within a certain range might not be in the patient’s best interest. 

What Does Pregnenolone Do?

As I said, pregnenolone hormone is a precursor to the sex hormones. In the ovaries, pregnenolone is converted into progesterone, which can then be converted into estrogen. Estrogen is essential for regulating the menstrual cycle and maintaining female reproductive health. After menopause, estrogen levels plummet. And if there’s not enough of the next hormone pregnenolone converts into, menopause can be a hot mess. 

That next hormone I’m talking about is progesterone. Progesterone helps maintain the uterine lining during the second half of the menstrual cycle, preparing the body for potential pregnancy. But if you don’t get pregnant, your progesterone levels drop in the days leading up to menstruation. In some women, it drops to practically nothing. This causes abdominal cramps and moodiness. That’s why I recommend bio-identical progesterone cream for women who have problematic PMS symptoms or a rough menopausal transition with hot flashes. 

Speaking of menopause, pregnenolone itself does not directly cause menopause. But it’s part of the hormonal cascade leading to plummeting estrogen and progesterone production.

Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the importance of testosterone. Most people think testosterone is the sex hormone of importance only to men. But I bet you didn’t know that women actually have more testosterone than they do estrogen. It’s true. It’s just that men have many times more testosterone than women (about 7-8 times more). Having enough testosterone is important for women for not only lean muscle mass but also bone formation, reproductive health and mood regulation. Low testosterone levels in women are also a libido killer!

Should I Take Bio-Identical Pregnenolone? 

You probably don’t need to take it. Instead, I usually start my functional medicine clients with DHEA, which is another steroid hormone precursor. (Yet another reason we shouldn’t be concerned about lowering our cholesterol levels as much as possible.) Why DHEA and not pregnenolone? Well, it’s biochemically complicated, involving metabolic pathways and hormones. I’ll spare you the boring details. I also usually recommend progesterone cream before I reverse engineer and call for pregnenolone to be administered. In my functional medicine practice, I also teach people how to manage their cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

The important takeaway is that God gave us these hormones for a good reason. Studies show that taking a statin drug can lower levels of pregnenolone, and that can have negative consequences on your hormonal balance. If you are concerned about your hormonal levels and want a natural solution for keeping them optimally balanced I can help. 

Let’s get your hormone levels checked through some diagnostic tests. Contact me to learn more. I’m excited to help you feel your best!

Until next time, 

Jenna Witt, NP