You may think of cholesterol as bad. However, all types of cholesterols play an integral role in our every day health. Before we go fat bashing, lets look at some of the essential roles cholesterols play in maintaining your health.
- Lipids make up part of the wall membrane of every cell in your body. It helps to regulate how much water gets in and out of a cell (It keeps it from popping like a ketchup packet on a hot sidewalk).
- It coats your nerves to strengthen the signal. You've heard people talk about "muscle memory". They are, in part, referring to the fact that the body has coated that nerve route in cholesterol so that the signals can move faster without losing strength. Think of it as the insulation around the cable going to your TV. Without it, you would have a picture with a lot of static.
- The protective sac around your heart (pericardium) is lubricated with cholesterol. This prevents your heart from developing a friction blister every time it beats.
- The grey matter that provides support and protection for your brain cells is composed of mostly cholesterol. So the next time someone calls you a "fat head", tell them "You're one to be talking"!
- Many of the body's hormones are produced from cholesterols.
- The bile that helps you digest your food is made mostly of cholesterol.
Why do we need cholesterols?
Many of the vitamins and fats we need to live are not water soluble. Since most of you is made of water, this is a big problem. To get things where we need them, the body constructs vehicles made of cholesterol. These vehicles pick up the various fats and vitamins and take them to where they are needed. There are many subsets to each type of cholesterol. Each plays a slightly different role. Using the vehicle analogy, there are many different kinds of "Trucks", each are specialized to carry a different cargo, like dump trucks, garbage trucks, pickup trucks, etc... For this article we're going to stick to the main types of cholesterols. As human beings we have changed our world and our environment much faster than our bodies can adapt. Our bodies are still efficient conservers and recyclers of resources. It doesn't understand there is a McDonalds on every corner and hording every scrap of cholesterol is unnecessary. For good health your body needs to synthesize about 1 gram of cholesterol a day. The typical American eats 200 - 300 grams a day. You can see how this could be a problem. Luckily you can't absorb all of it, but you still get way more than you need. The good news is the cholesterol like compounds found in plants, called "phytosterols", compete for the same "openings" in the intestinal wall, making it more difficult to reabsorb cholesterol from our own bile. There has been some debate as to whether concentrated phytosterols are good for you or not. However no one disagrees that fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you, so get grazing.
Types of cholesterols.
LDL (the "bad" cholesterol)
LDL is responsible for transporting fatty acids through the blood stream. Again, your cells need these fatty acids to repair, reproduce, and build things that you need. Unfortunately, they also penetrate artery walls where they can become lodged and oxidize, creating plaques and blockages. This causes atherosclerotic arteries and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Some studies indicate that high levels of LDL may make you more prone to Staph infections.
"This is what LDL looks like under an electron Microscope. It is very small, flat, and stacks easily on top of each other. This makes it very easy for them to get stuck in your arteries and cause problems."
HDL is responsible for absorbing various lipids and transporting them to various organs to be turned into hormones or back to the liver for recycling. HDL and their protein and lipid constituents help to inhibit oxidation, inflammation, blood coagulation, and platelet aggregation. This may explain why HDL cholesterols have a protective quality in the cardiovascular system. Men tend to have noticeably lower HDL levels, with smaller size and lower cholesterol content, than women. Men also have an increased incidence of atherosclerotic heart disease. Even people with very low LDL levels are exposed to increased risk if their HDL levels are not high enough.
Triglycerides (the "tasty" cholesterol)
There are many types of triglycerides with varying degrees of consequence on your health. Much about what triglycerides do in the body are still not understood. The two things to remember are: 1) Triglycerides are a way for the body to store unused calories until they can be used or stored as fat. 2) triglycerides come from high carbohydrate foods not necessarily fatty foods. Some examples of foods high in triglycerides are breads, pastas, candy, wines, and fruit juices. (yum)
"This is a triglyceride molecule. It main purpose is to temporarily store calories. If it doesn't get used it will be stored as fat."
What to do about it.
I'm not going to belabor this point. Balanced, portion controlled, home prepared, high in fruits and vegetables. Enough said.
Get your exercise
Exercise stimulates enzymes that help move LDL from the blood (and blood-vessel walls) to the liver. From there, the cholesterol is converted into bile (for digestion) or excreted. So the more you exercise, the more LDL your body expels. Exercise also stimulates the liver to produce more HDL cholesterol (the good one), that has been shown to have a protective quality.
Statins Statins inhibit the production of an enzyme needed by the liver to make cholesterol. Interestingly, most cholesterol production occurs at night. This is why your doctor has you take your statin at night. Niacin Niacin is a B vitamin. It can help increase the level of protective HDL cholesterol. The Mayo Clinic reports that niacin may increase HDL 15% - 35%. Don't go taking a bunch of niacin before talking to your doctor. If you take too much niacin (even at recommended doses) it can make you miserable and sick. More is not better when it comes to niacin! Red Yeast Rice A source of naturally occurring statins (the prescription drugs used to lower LDL levels and control cholesterol). Red yeast rice extract delivers a mix of these statin-like compounds rather than a single type of molecule, so it's less likely to cause side effects, such as liver dysfunction that can occur with pharmaceutical versions. However, not everyone in the medical community agrees. If you have blood sugar problems, this is not the right supplement for you. Zetia and Welchol Both work by preventing the re-absorption of cholesterol from your bile. This results in a net loss of LDL cholesterol. Fenofibrate Fenofibrate lowers LDL and triglycerides while increasing HDL. It does this by stimulating pathways in the liver to convert LDLs to HDLs Monoclonal Human Antibodies This is my favorite because we are studying it right now! These antibodies (you produce some in tiny amounts) eliminate an enzyme from the body. This enzyme normally would tell the liver to stop getting rid of your LDL cholesterol. This antibody shoots the messenger so the liver never receives the orders to stop eliminating LDL. We covered the very basics of cholesterols. The subject is actually very complex and fascinating. Every day we discover a new subset of cholesterol and how it affects the body for better or worse.