Understanding Cholesterol and its Functions
Cholesterol is a key player in the daily function of our bodies. It’s found in every cell and helps support functions in our brain, nerves and skin. Although it usually seems to have a bad reputation, there is such a thing as “good” cholesterol and maintaining a healthy level will ensure a healthy lifestyle.
So what is cholesterol and how does it function? Read on to find out.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is fat (or lipid) that is naturally produced by the liver. It has a waxy texture to it and is also found in food, mainly animal products such as meat, dairy and poultry.
Some of its main functions are to build cells, helping them maintain their cell membranes so that they do not rupture, as well as for the skin to manufacture vitamin D that aids in nurturing healthy bones, teeth and muscles. It is also used in the production of hormones, particularly the sex hormones testosterone and progesterone and hormones produced by the adrenal gland.
The gut also uses cholesterol in producing bile for digestion. Cholesterol circulates in our blood. However, since it is fat-based, it cannot mix with blood, which is water-based. To help with transporting cholesterol around our bodies and make sure that it can be absorbed where needed, it needs to be bound with a protein.
How does cholesterol work?
To do this, the liver produces lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are particles made from fat and protein. They package cholesterol and triglycerides, another type of lipid, and transport them through your bloodstream. The two major forms of lipoprotein are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDLs are lipoproteins that have given up the majority of their triglycerides to cells after being transported and are now mainly made up of cholesterol. They then transport this remaining cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body. These are usually termed as “bad” cholesterol because they can lead to the accumulation of cholesterol and contribute to blockages in the lymphatic system.
HDLs are very different to LDLs. They are considered to be “good” cholesterol since they are empty vessels that travel around the body, searching for excess levels of cholesterol in tissues that are not of primary concern. HDLs will collect this excess and transport it back to the liver for recycling.
For example, one of the main functions of cholesterol is to help with digestion. In this scenario, the lipoproteins will be transported to the liver to make bile acids. This bile will be used to break down fats that we consume from food. Once the food has been digested, some of the bile will be excreted from the body, while the rest of it travels back to the liver to be used again in the same way.
When does high cholesterol become an issue?
There may be no early symptoms for high cholesterol levels and they can only be apparent when serious conditions like a heart attack or stroke occur. This is why it is important that anyone over the age of 20, should get screened every 4-6 years.
If there is too much cholesterol in the body, it builds up. The waxy buildup, called plaque, sticks to the insides of the arteries. As the arteries narrow and clog, it is difficult for the blood to flow through them. The blockage can lead to a blood clot, stroke or heart disease. Many other arteries can also be affected by clogging and clotting, leading to issues with the kidneys and gut.
Unhealthy levels of cholesterol can also lead to gallstones which obstruct the flow of bile and pancreatic juices, leading to life-threatening complications.
Smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes together with high cholesterol contribute to coronary heart disease. Foods that contain cholesterol are also high in trans fats and saturated fats. When you eat these foods, your liver can increase the production of natural cholesterol, possibly leading to an unhealthy level of cholesterol.
Who is affected by cholesterol?
High cholesterol levels are affected by different factors. These include:
- Genetics: because cholesterol is manufactured by our bodies, the gene that increases levels of cholesterol in the blood may be passed on. If you have a close relative that has high cholesterol, such as a parent, sibling or grandparent, it is likely for you to have it as well.
- Age: levels of cholesterol increase as we age because LDLs are circulating through the bloodstream over a prolonged period. This leads to the build-up of deposits in the bloodstream.
- Obesity: having an increase in fatty tissue leads to higher amounts of fatty acids that are delivered to the liver. This means more cholesterol is needed to break down the excess fatty acids.
- Inactivity: living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to weight gain and an increase in LDLs. Physical activity increases HDLs.
- Diet: consuming high quantities of saturated and trans fats can raise LDLs.
- Smoking: this causes damage to the blood vessels which makes it easier for fat deposits to build up. More fat means more cholesterol is needed to break it down.
What can you do to maintain healthy cholesterol?
- Avoid or cut down on foods high in saturated and trans fats. These include:
- Cakes and biscuits
- Marbled and organ meats
- Fried or deep-fried foods
- Butter and full-fat dairy products
Instead, opt for healthier choices such as :
- Lean protein foods that provide less calories from fat
- Foods that are baked, broiled or grilled
- Low-fat dairy products
- Foods containing coconut or palm oil
- Foods high in fibre
- Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts, salmon and ground flaxseed
2. Exercise regularly. Try to aim for 150 minutes of physical activity each week.
Regular exercise has many benefits for your health. When you combine exercise with the necessary and weight loss and diet changes, you can help lower your triglyceride levels. Going to the gym 3 times a week or going for a run with a friend will help you keep your level under control and promote a healthy lifestyle to benefit you in the long-run.
3. Drink lots of water
Staying hydrated is extremely important for good circulatory health. When you don’t consume enough water, you lower your blood volume, which impacts your arterial pressure. This results in extra cholesterol being released into a depleted bloodstream which settles onto the arterial walls instead of being flushed through the body.
It is important to continually check your cholesterol levels and remember that you can influence them by making the right choices and decisions to ensure that you do not fall at risk for any complications. Staying informed on cholesterol and the role it plays in you and your family’s life will help maintain a healthy lifestyle.