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What is Cholesterol

September 24, 2010

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When you think of cholesterol, the immediate connotation is bad. Cholesterol is thought of as a clogger of arteries and a predictor of heart disease, stroke or heart attack. In actuality, cholesterol can be good and bad and is essential for proper body functioning. Here you will learn about what cholesterol is, what cholesterol does for the body and how important it is to maintain cholesterol levels.



            If you know anything about cholesterol its probably that there are two kinds and most people put them in terms of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. This categorization is correct in the understanding of how each group of cholesterol interacts within the body. However, more importantly is what cholesterol is. Cholesterol is one of the major organic molecules that is synthesized with the human body. It is soft and waxy in nature and can be found within cell membranes and is essential for sustaining life.



            Cholesterols primary function is to maintain appropriate cell membrane permeability. So, cholesterol is like a gatekeeper into the cell, determining what can and cannot enter. Cholesterol also acts as the intracellular transport, cellular signal and nerve conduction. Although these are not its only function. Cholesterol is also used to produce bile acids, steroid hormones, and fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E and Vitamin K that are essential for body function. When cholesterol needs to be transported to other areas of the body for synthesis, it needs a carrier. Unfortunately like so many other body fats, cholesterol is not soluble in the bloodstream making it impossible to move freely throughout the body. It needs a special carrier called a lipoprotein to transport and target which tissues need lipids.

            There are several lipoproteins however the two that people most commonly refer to are HDL and LDL. When someone refers to good and bad cholesterol they are actually referring to their lipoprotein particles. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are good/ healthy cholesterol particles and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are bad cholesterol particles. HDL removes plaque and cholesterol from arteries and transports them to the liver for excretion, therefore reducing the risk for heart disease and arthrosclerosis.



On the other hand LDL is the most common carrier of cholesterol because its cholesterol to protein ratio is high. When there are too many LDL particles in the bloodstream, the body tries to get rid of them however; the cells become trapped within the blood vessels. These trapped cells contribute to the build up of plaque. Plaque buildup can clog the arteries and decrease blood flow to the heart, and brain. In addition blood clots can form near the plaque buildups and can lead to a heart attack or stroke. This is why LDL is considered bad cholesterol.     

            So the objective with cholesterol is to have higher levels of HDL and lower levels of LDL. But where does cholesterol come from and how do you know whether you are taking in good or bad cholesterol? Our body, the amazing masterpiece that it is, actually produces more than enough cholesterol in one day to sustain proper body functioning.  Synthesis occurs mostly in the liver but also in the intestines, adrenal glands and the reproductive organs. Approximately 1,000mg or 1g of cholesterol is synthesized each day by the body(according to a persons weight). However, when we eat, we consume additional cholesterol through our food. Sources of cholesterol include whole milk, dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, fish and seafood.



            When we ingest food that contains cholesterol our bodies automatically regulate the synthesis of cholesterol accordingly. If we intake higher amounts of cholesterol, the body reduces the amount of cholesterol it synthesizes. Additionally, if we ingest lower amounts of cholesterol the body increases the production of cholesterol. Generally an average person ingests 200-300mg of cholesterol from their food intake. Although, the body will regulate the synthesis based on the amount from food, in our society its not just cholesterol we have to worry about.

Saturated and trans fat play a major role in the amount of cholesterol in the body. Saturated fats are present in full fat dairy products, animal fats, several types of oils and chocolate. Trans fat is present in margarine and hydrogenated vegetable fat used in many of the fast food restaurants, snack foods, and fried or baked goods. By eating foods that are high in saturated fats and trans fats we are increasing our likelihood for heart disease, arthrosclerosis, heart attack and stroke. 

To reduce the risk you need to change your diet.  Limit your intake of cholesterol to under 300mg per day. If you have high cholesterol or been diagnosed with heart disease lower your intake levels to below 200 mg per day. Limit your intake of lean meat/fish/poultry to 6 ounces daily. Consume low fat or no fat dairy products. Substitute legumes for protein sources, so you don’t take in the added cholesterol.

            If cholesterol is a concern for you or you have been previously tested to have high cholesterol or heart disease, it is important to see your doctor. Have your blood cholesterol tested. Talk to you doctor about your cholesterol concerns. There are several ways to reduce cholesterol and your risks through diet and exercise. Take the first step!