What Is Cholesterol?
What is cholesterol? We have all heard of it but many of us are not aware of what it actually is. It's all a tad confusing, what with HDL and LDL cholesterol.
CHOLESTEROL: WHAT IS IT?
The first question that needs to be answered is, of course, what is cholesterol. Found in the lipids (fats) in the bloodstream and all the cells that make up the human body, cholesterol is a waxy, soft substance. It is naturally occurring and constitutes the membranes and walls of every cell including those in the heart, brain, nerves, muscle, skin, intestines and liver. For those interested in its etymology, cholesterol is a combination of the Greek words "Chole" (meaning "bile") and stereos (meaning "solid/stiff").
The term "cholesterol" has recently acquired such a negative connotation, that you would think it is something completely unhealthy and unnecessary.
What most people aren't aware of is that, in its naturally occurring amount, it is essential for our bodies to function properly. Important hormones like testosterone, estrogen, vitamin D and bile acids (which help in digestion of fats) are highly dependent on cholesterol.
However, that being said, it is also important to note that the body is so self-sufficient regarding its cholesterol production that you would be fine even if you never again touched an extra-cheese hamburger in your life. The human body Cholesterol comes from two primary sources. The body’s main cholesterol-producing organ is the liver. Cholesterol is also produced by the foods we consume (some like red meat and poultry have alarmingly high levels of cholesterol). Estimates indicate that 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol are produced daily by the liver while around 150 to 250 are consumed through food.
Important in understanding what is cholesterol is also the method of its transportation. Cholesterol (and other fats) can not dissolve in the blood. Special transportation units called "lipoproteins" do the job of transferring them to and from the cells. While there are several kinds of lipoproteins, the ones you need to really educate yourself on are the LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and the HDL (high-density lipoprotein).
WHAT IS LDL CHOLESTEROL?
Low-density lipoproteins are the primary transporters of cholesterol in the bloodstream. If the LDL circulation in your blood exceeds a certain level, it can gradually start depositing in the walls of the arteries that feed the brain and heart. By the sound of it, you must have guessed that that is a bad, bad thing. It’s undesirable because it can lead to plaque formation (which is a thick, hard deposit) when it combines other substances. The plaque can then clog up the arteries (a condition called atherosclerosis). A thrombus or clot that forms near this clogging can block the blood flow to the brain or heart, resulting in a stroke or heart attack respectively. If the arteries affected by atherosclerosis were the coronary arteries (blood flow to the heart), the condition of coronary artery disease emerges. If it’s the blood vessels that supply the brain, that are affected, the condition is called cerebral vascular disease. Ideally, your LDL cholesterol level should be under 100 mg/dl (though your doctor could set your goals at an even lower level).
WHAT IS HDL CHOLESTEROL?
Around 25% to 33% of blood cholesterol is transported by the High-density lipoproteins (HDL). Unlike their evil counterparts, HDL act responsibly and are believed to take the cholesterol away from the arteries and into the liver, from where it is taken out of the human body (in the form of waste).
Some medical sources also say that plaques are reduced by the removal of cholesterol from them by the HDL. Because of these benefits, HDL cholesterol is called the good cholesterol. A high level of HDL reduces the risk of stroke and heart attacks while a low level can increase the risk of the same. Remember that it’s good to get your blood checked for cholesterol levels early in your life. That way you are better prepared to battle cholesterol problems.
Note: The blood test that reveals your cholesterol levels is done after a fasting of, anywhere, from 9 to 14 hours (as ordered by the doctor) and provides details about your total cholesterol (TC), Low-density Lipoproteins and High-Density Lipoproteins cholesterol and triglycerides (which is a substance closely related to cholesterol and believed to be an important cause behind coronary artery disease (CAD), diabetes and obesity). If you are on some medication, consult your doctor before taking the test. He/she might advise you to stop or continue taking it. Don’t make a decision on your own.
CAUSES OF HIGH CHOLESTEROL
There are numerous reasons why you might be having a high level of blood cholesterol. Some of the leading factors are:
Excess weight and especially obesity have shown to be strongly linked with a high level of high cholesterol.
Your family might have a history of cholesterol-related problems. It's always good to know about the diseases that run in your family.
Foods with high levels of Saturated fat, Trans fat and Cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease for you because they increase the blood cholesterol level. A healthy diet will help you no matter what bad condition you're trying to avoid.
HDL levels have been seen to increase through regular exercise. So exercise (and even the littlest physical activity) can help your chances against heart disease.
The risk for cholesterol-related conditions increases with age. It's better to start making better choices from a young age so you have to face fewer problems when you're older.
Women have a natural edge in HDL thanks to their pre-menopause hormones. The men will just have to exercise a little more!
Smoking And Alcohol Intake
LDL levels have also been linked to smoking. Also, people who drink have, generally, lower levels of HDL than people who don't.
This great video narrates some of the important things about cholesterol (discussed in detail on this page), and includes a lot of relevant images and animations!
Click here to watch the video.
Cholesterol is an essential component of the ideal functioning human body. However, excessive levels of bad cholesterol can put people at risk for serious medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Everyone should get their blood cholesterol level checked periodically. Before taking cholesterol-lowering medicine like Statins with their dangerous side effects, be sure to consult your doctor.
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