What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a found in food, but most importantly our body makes it ourselves. It is an
important ingredient in many areas of the body and has many functions for healing.
It is heart health month and one of the most important and regularly used metrics for heart health is cholesterol. There are a lot of people out there with high cholesterol and prescribed medication. According to the CDC, 95 million adult Americans have high cholesterol in 2015 and Crestor (a cholesterol lowing medication) is the second most prescribed medication. But what does high cholesterol mean and what can you actually do about it besides medication?
Our cell membranes are mostly made out of cholesterol and it helps build tissue. The cell membrane is the outer part of the cell that protect the cell from things getting in that aren’t supposed to, similar to our skin. Cholesterol’s function is to help firm up the membrane to keep water-soluble molecules from entering the cell. Low cholesterol may lead to the membrane being too fluid, allowing some molecules to pass.
The highest amount of cholesterol is found in the brain. The brain and nerves use cholesterol extensively to function properly. The brain actually makes its own cholesterol, the same way the liver does for the body. All our sex hormones require cholesterol to be made, including testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol. These hormones play an important role in energy, focus, mood, fertility, and stress response.
Cholesterol is also required for the production of Vitamin D, which is triggered through sunlight. All foods that contain Vitamin D are also foods that contain a good amount of cholesterol, such has fatty fish and beef liver. Vitamin D is an incredibly important nutrient for bone health, immune system, mood and many other things.
Cholesterol is also converted into bile from the liver. Bile is then pushed to the gall bladder for storage while it waits for a fatty meal to initiate secretion into the intestines. Bile is needed to absorb fats and fat-soluble nutrients, such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K. Bile is also important for excretion of fat-soluble toxins. While urination is a major way we get rid of waste, some molecules are not soluble in water and therefore have to be excreted in our stool.
There are two main types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL. Technically there is only one type of cholesterol. These are actually lipoproteins that carry cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol away from the body towards the liver so the cholesterol can be removed from the body. HDL is also a major antioxidant that protects the body from free radicals. LDL carries cholesterol towards the body so it can use cholesterol in its many functions. LDL also heals damage to arteries, which is why it can be considered “bad” cholesterol because when it messes up it can cause ill-effects instead.
The Ill-Effects of Cholesterol
Just like anything else, you can always have too much of a good thing. In the case of cholesterol, too high levels have been linked with cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes. This occurs when cholesterol binds with other substances and form plaque. Plaque can then stick to your arteries, creating atherosclerosis and blocks the
arteries around the heart.
This occurs mainly when LDL goes to heal arterial damage. LDL is supposed to go beneath the surface of the artery to patch up any wounds to the artery walls, but when LDL gets oxidized it essentially gets stuck, not healing the damage at all. This creates a cascade of events of more oxidized LDL coming to fix the damage incorrectly and creating a
plaque, narrowing the artery. Narrow arteries are dangerous as then it is more likely for something to get stuck preventing blood flow.
Therefore higher the LDL levels are the higher the risk of a situation like this occurring. But more importantly is that this situation occurs when LDL gets oxidized. Oxidation happens from free radicals, a highly reactive molecule which causes damage to anything they touch by stripping away electrons. Our body protects ourselves against free radicals and oxidation by antioxidants. We make our own antioxidants, such as glutathione, but also eat it in our food (fruits and egetables mostly). Therefore the big debate is whether high LDL is the main concern or low antioxidant status and high free radical status is the main concern.
Luckily the treatment for both are very similar: diet and exercises. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables will help keep the antioxidant status high and many have cholesterol lowering properties. Fried foods, sugars, alcohol, and processed food can all increase cholesterol levels, but can also increase free radical status. Exercise is incredibly important for blood flow and proper utilization of cholesterol while also removing free radicals and increasing personal supply of antioxidants high.
If you are not prepared for diet and exercise, then medication or supplementation may be necessary, but just make sure your cholesterol doesn’t go too low. The other concern with medication is that statin drugs, like Crestor, work by decreasing your bodies ability to produce its own cholesterol. The pathway that leads to cholesterol production also eads to CoQ10 production. CoQ10 is an important antioxidant and energy source for muscles, the heart, and the brain. If you are taking a statin medication it is important to also take a CoQ10 supplement since your body won’t be making s much.