Cholesterol is a powdery, white substance which is found in all animal cells, but it is not found in plant cells. Despite its sometimes bad press, cholesterol is a vital nutrient needed for many bodily functions, such as repairing cell membranes, producing hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, and manufacturing vitamin D on the surface of the skin.
On the flip side, when blood cholesterol levels rise too high they can have serious consequences. There are 3 major components that make up the cholesterol level: LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Let's start with a brief course in cholesterol physiology.
Lipoproteins (pronounced LIE-poe-PRO-teins) are spheres of protein that transport fatty substances through the bloodstream. Itís kind of like the oil and vinegar phenomenon. They just donít mix. Likewise, fatty substances (such as lipids/cholesterol) donít mix well with the watery environment of the blood, so they need these specialized particles to carry them around. There are different classes of lipoproteins. Some carry cholesterol, while others carry triglycerides.
LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) is often called the 'bad'cholesterol, and for good reason. LDL cholesterol transports close to 75% of the bloodís cholesterol to the bodyís cells. While usually harmless, when exposed to the natural process of oxidation, it can penetrate the walls of arteries and cause inflammation, which ultimately leads to plaque formation in arterial walls. These plaques cause blockage of the arteries, which compromises the flow of oxygen-rich blood to vital organs. When plaques block arteries that supply the heart, brain, and legs, it can potentially lead to heart attack, stroke, and amputations, respectively.
HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) is the 'good' cholesterol. It not only helps prevent oxidation of LDL, it actually removes cholesterol from the walls of arteries and returns it to the liver. By helping keep arteries open, HDL cholesterol has been shown to help reduce the risk for heart attack. As a matter of fact, in contrast to LDL cholesterol, one wants to have high level of HDL cholesterol. Many believe that high levels of HDL may be as important for protection of the heart as low levels of LDL. HDL cholesterol is so significant that low levels are actually considered harmful and may increase the risk of a heart attack, regardless of the level of LDL or total cholesterol.
Triglycerides (pronounced try-GLI-sir-ides) are yet another fatty substance in the blood. More evidence is emerging which links an elevated triglyceride level to a variety of medical problems, including heart disease. Among other things, it appears that triglycerides interact with HDL cholesterol in a way that causes HDL levels to fall as triglyceride levels rise, and as previously stated, a low HDL cholesterol level is harmful to the heart.
What is the source of cholesterol?
While some of the bodyís cholesterol is acquired through the diet, about two-thirds is actually manufactured in the body by the liver. Saturated fat drives this production. It is found in animal products, meats, and dairy products, so shop wisely and remember to read the labels. Donít be fooled by marketing ploys, such, ďWe cook all our food in 100% cholesterol-free vegetable oil.Ē Veggies donít eat cholesterol-rich food and donít have livers, so they canít manufacture cholesterol from scratch! There are a lot of similar marketing ploys that trick health-conscious consumers into purchasing products that appear to have some special health advantage, while they are really only stating the obvious. Donít get duped.
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