You’ve probably heard a lot of bad things about cholesterol…but not so fast, you actually NEED some! Keep reading.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy type of fat found in your blood and in your cells. Your liver makes most of the cholesterol in your body, and the rest comes from foods you eat (though we actually don’t need to eat cholesterol to survive). Cholesterol travels through the blood bound to proteins called lipoproteins. This is why the main types of cholesterol are known as high density lipoprotein (HDL, or the “good” kind), low density lipoprotein (LDL, or the “bad” kind) and very low density lipoprotein (VLDL). Cholesterol is essential for good health, and your body needs cholesterol in order to perform many important jobs in the body. But as you have probably heard, too much isn’t ideal.
Why is too much a bad thing?
Having too much cholesterol in the blood causes it to form plaque in the blood. Plaque sticks to the walls of the arteries and causes a condition known as atherosclerosis. This causes the arteries to become narrow, stiff, and even blocked, and can lead to serious complications such as heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
In addition, having high cholesterol can be inflammatory to the body, and inflammation is another huge risk factor for heart disease. Controlling inflammation in the body should always be addressed in addition to trying to manage cholesterol levels.
Contrary to what was once believed, eating foods high in cholesterol is not what causes high cholesterol in the blood. In fact, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans of 2015-2020 removed the old recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol to 300mg/day, stating that adequate evidence was not available. Extensive research does not show that eating foods that contain cholesterol causes heart disease. However, eating a diet high in trans fats, sugar, and alcohol have all been linked to higher cholesterol and/or triglyceride levels. Keep in mind, though, that only about 20% of the cholesterol in your blood stream comes from the foods you eat, with the remaining 80% coming from the body alone.
What are normal cholesterol blood levels?
The normal ranges for cholesterol and triglyceride levels for adults >/=20 years of age are as follows:
|Total Cholesterol||125-200 mg/dL|
|HDL||Men: 40mg/dL or higher
Women: 50mg/dL or higher
5 reasons your body actually NEEDS cholesterol
As mentioned, cholesterol plays many important roles in the body, and we all need it to survive. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Cell membranes. These are the backbone to every cell in our bodies, and without cholesterol, they would have no structure.
- Hormone production. The body’s hormone-producing glands use cholesterol to make hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol, so it plays an important role in sex development and even stress levels.
- Vitamin D synthesis. Cholesterol is a precursor molecule required for the production of vitamin D in the body, which you can read more about the benefits of here.
- Digestion. In the digestive system, cholesterol is essential for the production of bile, a substance that helps your body break down fats and absorb nutrients. A lack of bile can lead to malnutrition and even bacteria overgrowth in the intestines.
- Brain & nerve function. Cholesterol is an essential component of the human brain (did you know it has a higher cholesterol content than any other organ in the body?). Cholesterol is also essential for the myelin sheaths that surround nerve cells, which protects them and helps transmit electrical impulses that control thought, movement, and sensation.
While it is true that too much cholesterol can harm the body, it’s a substance that should not be feared. We really DO need it! Having a better understanding of cholesterol can help us appreciate what it does for our bodies and not fear foods that contain it anymore.