The basics of cholesterol that everyone should know

High cholesterol levels are directly linked to cardiovascular disease. To be able to resist the disease we must first understand the basics of cholesterol. Being informed about how cholesterol functions and the why and how it is present in the body will make it easier to control it.

Rarely do we pause to think of our heart and the circulatory system, despite the vital role that they execute in supporting us, in leading an active and full life. It is only when we find ourselves running to catch a bus or while taking the stairs or when engaged in some strenuous activity do we perhaps become conscious of our heart pounding and the blood gushing through our circulatory system, trying to keep pace with the stresses that we inadvertently impose on them.

Figures indicate that cardiovascular disease ('cardio' refers to heart and 'vascular' relates to the blood vessels) is one of the biggest killers. Almost 50% of all deaths attributed to coronary heart disease are linked to high blood cholesterol levels. What most people do not realize is that impairment of their blood vessels begins without their knowledge. By the time they hit 25, the damage would have already begun, though serious repercussions might surface much later in life. However, making lifestyle changes and altering how we eat, can greatly impact the fitness of the heart and circulatory system.

What I mentioned above and information that I am going to share come from a seminar I attended, as part of my job. This is going to be a series of articles on cholesterol and heart health. To learn to deal with these medical conditions, we must first understand what minute details about them.

Are you ready to change?

Your reading this article is an indication that you might perhaps be interested in – or possibly anxious about – the health of your heart and the dangers of associated diseases. A medical check-up has possibly revealed high cholesterol levels. Or you may have been jolted out of 'slumber' seeing someone close to you suffer from a cardiovascular problem, like a heart attack or a stroke, and you are distressed by how adversely it affected them and the people around them. Perhaps you have realized that it is time you took stock of your life and addressed health concerns that may bog you down, as you age.

Whatever the motivation for your interest, the information in this series of articles will help you understand cholesterol and heart health better and bolster your resolve to choose healthier eating habits. To begin with let's get down to understanding the 'cholesterol' bit. All we (well, most of us) know is that cholesterol is bad for us. Yes, we do hear of good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL), and for most of us that is the extent of our knowledge on cholesterol. It's time to learn a little more about cholesterol and why our body needs it, not to forget how it impacts our physical health. I am going to tell you stuff that your doctor will not share with you when he gives you that 'lecture' on bringing down undesirable cholesterol levels.

The Cholesterol Puzzle

Of all the things that the human body creates, cholesterol appears to be at the receiving end of all the bad press. (That's right – the human body 'produces' cholesterol – I'll discuss this fact later in the article.) However, what most of us do not realize is that cholesterol is actually quite vital for our existence. It is, in fact, so essential for bodily functions that the liver produces its own stock of cholesterol so we do not have to depend on dietary intake.

The human body produces cholesterol

You might be aware that bile salts are produced in the liver and that they help with the digestion of food. What you might not know is that cholesterol is required for the making of bile. The bulk of cholesterol running through our blood is produced by the liver from saturated fatty acids present in our diet. Our body also absorbs cholesterol from cholesterol rich foods that we consume. These cholesterol rich foods include -
  • Fatty meats
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Seafood
  • Dairy products

Essentially, production of cholesterol gets regulated by the liver, in the event of it being readily available in the diet.

The human body needs cholesterol

The body needs cholesterol and to think it is all bad, would be an inaccurate judgement. Cholesterol is important because it acts as a precursor in the human body. What it means is that fundamentally, cholesterol is a substance which the human body requires to create other substances through a metabolic reaction. The functioning of the body is hampered when certain precursors are not present or are impaired. Progesterone and testosterone, for instance, are sex hormones that cholesterol acts as a precursor for. Similarly, the body requires cholesterol to release the hormone cortisol when the body is under undue stress. Cholesterol is also needed for healthy formation and sustenance of cell membranes. Further, it provides a protective covering round nerve fibres that connect with the brain, helping to send messages to and from it. So, cholesterol is a substance that has specifics duties to perform within the body. It is when there is excess of this substance that health alerts happen. Excess cholesterol has an adverse impact on the heart and the circulatory system.

How cholesterol gets into the blood

Cholesterol is transported from the liver to different parts of the body, where it is needed to complete specific bodily functions. This transportation is facilitated by the circulatory system. Since, cholesterol has a 'waxy' texture it does not blend with the blood, transporting it. So, the body uses carriers known as 'lipoproteins' to move the cholesterol around. There are five kinds of lipoproteins in all, including High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) and Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL). These are soluble proteins that blend with and move fats and cholesterol within the body.

It is lipoproteins that medical lab technicians look for when assessing blood for determining exact cholesterol count. The lipoprotein count in the blood reveals precise cholesterol present in the blood given for evaluation. A higher count of LDL puts you at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Doctors aim at not just lowering levels of LDL (the bad cholesterol), but also raising levels of HDL (the good cholesterol). The liver has the ability to remodel each lipoprotein into a different kind by altering the lipoproteins structure. So, what might start off as a fatty lipoprotein might eventually contract, reducing in size and becoming a low density cholesterol transporter. More on that in the next article.

Article by Juana
Juana is a freelance writer, with years of experience, creating content for varied online portals. She holds a degree in English Literature and has worked as a teacher and as a soft skill trainer. An avid reader, she writes on a variety of topics ranging from health, travel, education and personality development.

Follow Juana or read 547 articles authored by Juana

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