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What’s So Bad About Cholesterol?

Chances are you’ve heard someone say the phrase, “I need to lower my cholesterol.”  Most people would be hard pressed to explain what cholesterol actually is, what roles it plays in our bodies or just how lowering cholesterol improves our health.

Physically, cholesterol has a texture about halfway between butter and wax.  It’s categorized as a lipid, a type of fat, and it is essential to all animals.  Cholesterol is so important because of the role it plays in animal cells.  Every cell in our body has a lining, a cell membrane that separates the inside of the cell from the outside of the cell.  Cholesterol is essential to ensuring the stability of that lining.  Without cholesterol, animal cells would have a very hard time keeping the insides in and the outsides out.   The second important function of cholesterol is as a building block for many of our hormones.  All of our steroid hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, aldosterone, and vitamin D) are made out of cholesterol.  Immune function and sexuality are just a two of the important processes these hormones regulate.

These things rarely get mentioned when we talk about cholesterol. Usually when we talk about cholesterol, we’re talking about heart disease.

Cholesterol needs to be in every cell of our body, but most cholesterol is either created by the liver or absorbed from the digestive tract.  This presents the problem of how to distribute a fatty wax substance through out our mostly water bodies.  To solve this problem, people have a very elaborate system from moving cholesterol around the body.  The two biggest parts of this system are High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) and Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL), which are respectively referred to as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol.

At any given time, HDL and LDL can be found in the blood.  Cholesterol does a very good job of absorbing oxidants from the blood.  LDL cholesterol is easily oxidized when traveling through the blood.  Once LDL cholesterol is oxidized it becomes very sticky, sticky enough to hold onto the side of a blood vessel and form plaques.  When these plaques get large enough they can cause heart attacks, the deadliest forms of heart disease.

One of the most common approaches to preventing heart disease has to been to reduce LDL cholesterol.  Less LDL in the blood, means less cholesterol can get oxidized and form plaques.  The medications that are used to lower LDL cholesterol have saved countless lives and have reduced rates of heart disease.  However, these medications are not without risks, and every year a small portion of people are not able to tolerate the side effects of the medications.

However, there are multiple ways to address prevent the formation of plaques that do not artificially lower cholesterol.  Reducing oxidative stress, preventing the oxidation that turns cholesterol into plaques, and targeted nutritional therapies reduce the risk of heart disease.  Our diets are also profoundly powerful tools to regulate not only our intake of cholesterol but also our bodies production of cholesterol and oxidants.

Cholesterol does play an important factor in heart disease, but it is not the only factor.  And the simple view that ‘lower cholesterol is good for you,’ ignores all the important roles that cholesterol plays.

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