What is Cholesterol?

What is Cholesterol?

Everyone has heard of cholesterol but how many of us really know about it and the part it plays in our bodies? Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is present in all the cells of our bodies. It is required for building cells, making hormones, vitamin D and the production of bile, which helps in digestion by breaking down food and absorbing the nutrients.

Cholesterol is produced by two sources – Blood cholesterol comes from the liver which produces a sufficient amount for the needs of the body. Dietary cholesterol comes from food intake – mainly from animals. Examples are poultry (egg yolks), meat and dairy products. These foods are high in saturated and trans fats which result in the liver making more cholesterol than it normally would.

So, although cholesterol is required by the body, too much of it can lead to health problems. Combined with other substances in the blood, it can form plaque, which sticks to the walls of the arteries. This can result in coronary artery disease, cardiovascular problems and, at times, strokes. If the bile produces too much cholesterol, it can result in gallstones. Cholesterol is a lipoprotein – a combination of lipid (fat) and protein. There are 3 types of lipoproteins:
“Bad” cholesterol – LDL – low-density lipoprotein. A high level of LDL can increase the plaque in the arteries and cause health issues.
“Good” cholesterol – HDL – high-density lipoprotein. Higher levels of HDL reduces the risk of heart disease, as it takes the cholesterol from other parts of the body back to the liver, where it is removed from the body.
VLDL – very low-density lipoprotein. It also leads to buildup of plaque. However, the difference between LDL and VLDL is that the former contains mainly cholesterol whereas VLDL carries triglycerides. While triglycerides release energy, too high a level could increase the risk of heart disease.

Causes of high cholesterol: Sometimes it is hereditary, but the most common cause is an unhealthy lifestyle, as listed below:
Diet: Eating unhealthy food containing bad fats can raise the LDL level. Saturated fats are found mainly in meat, dairy products, deep-fried and processed foods. Some plant foods like coconut and palm oil contain saturated fats.
Lack of exercise: Physical activity is required, as not enough exercise and sitting for long periods of time could lower the HDL cholesterol.
Smoking: Besides the other bad side-effects, smoking raises LDL levels while lowering HDL cholesterol.
Obesity: Being overweight has the same effect as smoking – decreasing HDL and increasing LDL.
Alcohol consumption: This raises triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood. If the triglyceride level rises too much it can cause fatty liver disease. This results in the liver not being able to function properly by not removing the cholesterol from the blood.

Conclusion: We can see the important factor that cholesterol plays in our bodies and lives. It is wise to have our cholesterol levels checked on a regular basis. In that manner, if there is an unhealthy level, we can “nip the danger in the bud”. This can be done by changing the habits of an unhealthy lifestyle or taking medication on the advice of a physician.

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