Cholesterol: Get the Facts

Has become an everyday word that most of us associate with something that needs to be reduced in our diet and our blood. It seems like you can’t turn around without hearing about why you should reduce your cholesterol, and which drug will do it best for you. Fortunately, it is very possible to reduce cholesterol levels with dietary intervention to the extent that you may be able to lower your medications, or maybe get off them altogether.

So what exactly is cholesterol anyway?
Well, it’s a type of fat that the body produces. Producing cholesterol is one of the functions of the liver.  This isn’t a bad thing – in fact it’s a very necessary thing without which we couldn’t live. It’s used for many different purposes.

Learning and remembering
requires cholesterol. Yes – really! The liver isn’t the only organ that produces cholesterol, the brain does it too – it’s needed to make your neurotransmitters fire properly. If you don’t have enough cholesterol in your brain then you just might not be able to learn or remember as well.

Your cells depend on it
to keep their shape and stop them disintegrating to a pile of watery fluid, and it helps other cells to ‘talk’ to each other (cell signaling). Cholesterol forms part of the cell membrane. Together with the other molecules that make up the cell membrane, cholesterol helps keep what is in the cell in, and also keeps the contents from spilling out. It works in combination with specific proteins to help the cells function together (as in one being) rather than as a bunch of individual cells.

Your sex life
depends on cholesterol. It’s a building block for the steroid hormones, including sex hormones, without which we wouldn’t be here anyway.

Vitamin D
needs cholesterol as a building block too. Vitamin D is needed for a host of important functions in the body from bone health to cancer prevention. Nutrition science is discovering Vitamin D is involved in many more health issues than previously thought.

Digesting fats
wouldn’t happen without cholesterol because cholesterol helps make bile. Fats don’t mix too well with watery digestive fluids. Bile allows fats and watery fluids to emulsify then to be taken up by the body and distributed to where they are needed to help cell growth, make hormones, transport certain vitamins.

Well I bet you are wondering, if it’s so necessary for us, why do we need to lower it?
Because a particular kind of cholesterol – the small dense LDL cholesterol molecule is easily damaged.  Once that happens it can irritate the lining of your arteries causing little nicks and cuts. Your immune system sends in specialized proteins to mend the tissue. Just like a cut on your hand would scab over if you cut it, your damaged artery ‘scabs over’ and the result is what is called plaque and over time the plaque can lead to narrowing of the artery or blood clots if they break away from the artery wall.

Cholesterol lowering drugs – a necessary part of cholesterol control?
They are a two sided coin. On the one hand they do lower cholesterol and lessen the risk of damaged LDL hurting the artery and eventually leading to heart attack or stroke, on the other hand, they are not risk free, and can create some unpleasant side effects for some people. Statins for example are known to cause myalga or muscle aches, drowsiness, gastrointestinal problems and it is not yet clear if statins affect memory loss – since results of clinical trials are conflicting. A rare but very nasty side effect of statins in some people is a condition knows as rhabdomyolysis which leads to kidney breakdown, fortunately it is very rare but if you take statins and experience muscle ache, you need to get it checked out.

A safer way of reducing cholesterol
is to work with the body’s natural ability to turn it over. Remember it’s only the damaged cholesterol that does the harm, so it makes good sense to keep pulling cholesterol from the body so that the body makes new and undamaged cholesterol.  Foods that do this are discussed here.

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One Response to “Cholesterol: Get the Facts”

  1. [...] involved in keeping cell membranes stable.  That’s just one of the effects read about the rest here.   Riechman says that having high levels of cholesterol is a warning sign that something else is [...]

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