Cholesterol: Is it bad or is it good?

Is cholesterol really bad for your health?

Before answering that question, let’s talk first things first.  “Cholesterol,” explains a booklet produced as an information service by Bristol-Myers Squibb (Philippines), Inc., “is a type of fat mainly produced by the liver and which is essential for your normal body functioning.”

Without cholesterol, a person ceases to live.  “You need it for hormones, DNA, and cell membranes,” Dr. Ian Graham, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, told Reader’s Digest.

If not for cholesterol, you won’t be able to read this as your brain couldn’t function.

“Cholesterol is a normal and essential component of your body, and you need a certain amount of cholesterol in order for the body to make bile acids which aid in digestion, important hormones and vitamin D, and for the structure of cell membranes,” the booklet points out.

Important hormones refer to estrogen, testosterone and cortisol.  Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone and is responsible for development and regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics.  On the other hand, testosterone is a male sex hormone that is important for sexual and reproductive development.  Meanwhile, cortisol influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress.

It was François Poulletier de la Salle who first identified cholesterol in solid form in gallstones in 1769.  However, it was not until 1815 that chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul named the compound “cholesterine.”  Actually, the word comes from the Ancient Greek chole- (bile) and stereos (solid) followed by the chemical suffix -ol for an alcohol.

“Cholesterol is both our friend and foe,” an article published by Medical News Today states.  “At normal levels, it is an essential substance for the body’s normal functioning, but if levels in the blood get too high, it becomes a silent danger that puts us at risk of a heart attack.”

Here’s the reason why, according to the booklet: “Excess cholesterol can build up in the walls of your arteries.  Arteries supply blood to all organs, including the heart, and a significant build-up of cholesterol in an artery can cause a blockage, and your blood cannot flow properly.”

Imagine what happens when you block the end of a garden hose with your fingers — less water comes out and the pressure builds up.

But wait, when your doctor tells you about your cholesterol levels, what does he actually means?

Anita Bartholomew, in an article which appeared in Reader’s Digest, said the doctor is referring to the levels of several different types of particles of which cholesterol is just a part.

“These tiny particles are called lipoproteins, because their exteriors are made up of proteins, while the interior contains the lipid cholesterol and a second lipid called triglyceride,” Bartholomew explained.  Triglycerides make up most of the fat in the body.

The Merck Manual of Medical Information says there are different types of lipoproteins.  “Each type has a different purpose and is broken down and excreted in a slight different way,” it explains.  “Lipoproteins include chylomicrons, very low density lipoproteins (LVDL), low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).”

LDL is considered the “bad” cholesterol as it increases the risk of atherosclerosis and thus the risk of heart attack and stroke.  HDL is touted the “good” cholesterol as it help remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries.  VLDL is downright ugly cholesterol as it greatly increases heart health risks.

In general, a blood cholesterol level of lower than 5.5 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) is considered desirable.  A level between 5.5 and 6.5 mmol/L is a moderate risk, particularly if associated with other “risk factors” such as smoking and high blood pressure (hypertension).  However, these ranges should only be taken as a guide, and there is an ideal range for your age and sex.  Older people tend to have higher levels than younger people, so a level that is normal for one person may be high for another.

For most people, eating healthier foods is one of the first best step in getting cholesterol under control.  Meat, cheese and egg yolks are sources of cholesterol.  You also get cholesterol from animal foods, such as egg yolks, meat and cheese.  Saturated fat (found in some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, and deep-fried and processed foods) also adds cholesterol to the body.  Trans fats, too, which are found in some fried and processed foods.

“Cut back on the cholesterol and total fat — especially saturated and trans fats — that you eat,” the Mayo Clinic suggests. “Saturated fats, like those in meat, full-fat dairy products and some oils, raise your total cholesterol. Trans fats, which are sometimes found in margarines and store-bought cookies, crackers and cakes, are particularly bad for your cholesterol levels.”

According to several studies, being overweight or obese can also lead to higher blood LDL levels.  To manage this risk factor, experts recommend regular exercise and watching what goes into the tummy.

But the primary cause of high cholesterol is genetic in origin.  “This hereditary factor, which may be aggravated by high-cholesterol foods and saturated fats, causes the level of cholesterol in the blood to increase markedly,” the booklet says.

“If you have a genetic predisposition to, it is even more important for you to pay more attention to the risk factors for heart disease such as eating habits, lack of exercise, obesity, smoking and high blood pressure,” it adds.

It should be pointed out that heart problems are not always related to high cholesterol, although the Geneva-based World Health Organization estimates that cholesterol is responsible for a third of coronary heart disease cases.

“That’s significant, because cardiovascular disease is the number-one cause of death globally, accounting for more than 17.5 million deaths a year,” wrote Bartholomew.

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