Most of us are familiar with the idea that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, both playing vital roles in our health. Yet the complexity of cholesterol still leads many to avoid it altogether, focusing more on protein intake, calorie-counting, and avoiding carbohydrates and fats.
Here are some ways that cholesterol is good and needed for your health, two common myths about cholesterol, and why understanding these differences is a key in maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding complications.
How it Works
Remember your HDL’s and your LDL’s
According to the article (1) “The Truth About Cholesterol”, “Cholesterol is both a lipid (fat) as well as a sterol (steroid alcohol from which steroid hormones are produced). It moves throughout the bloodstream, attaches to triglycerides and phospholipids, and together the three are known as a lipoprotein.”
To take it a step further, there are two types of lipoproteins – high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).
HDLs have a higher protein to fat ratio, while LDLs have a lower one. LDLs are responsible for transporting cholesterol to your cells and tissues that actually require it, while HDLs follow through by collecting any excess cholesterol and deliver it to the liver to produce bile or be recycled.
However, if there is too much fat and cholesterol running through this process, the system goes into overdrive. If there are too many LDLs, the overdrive sends this extra cholesterol to the arteries, where blockage can build up and occur.
And blockage, of course, can potentially lead to heart attacks, atherosclerosis, and other serious problems over time.
Cholesterol-free does not mean cholesterol-free
For many people, the messy system in which cholesterol operates under seems to be easier avoided. However, your body still makes its own cholesterol; the liver being the key contributor.
When the body senses it needs cholesterol, the liver (and even some cells) will create cholesterol proteins – one that works with the LDL to be used by the body – and applies it to its necessary functions. So how is cholesterol actually used in our bodies?
From sex hormones to digestion: Four ways cholesterol has got your back
- Vitamin D, commonly known as a key producer for strong bones and a healthy immune system, must be first be converted from sunlight to your kidneys to produce usable Vitamin D for your body. Referencing (1) The Truth About Cholesterol, your body keeps just enough cholesterol in its skin that absorbs the sun’s radiation, sends it to your liver that creates hydroxyl vitamin D, and sends it to the kidneys to convert it into Vitamin D.
- Keeping in mind that a part of cholesterol is a sterol explains why it is needed to produce human sex hormones, including the steroids estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.
- Cell strength and movement is vital to many of the functions in our bodies. Cholesterol plays a key role in strengthening the outer coating of cells, known as the plasma membrane, which creates this needed, natural stability.
- Looking back on the production of bile (created by excess cholesterol sent from the HDLs to the liver), this bile is necessary to break down fats and help the small intestine absorb these fats during digestion.
While research has come a long way in illustrating these uses for our bodies, there are still certain myths and misunderstandings about cholesterol that need to be addressed.
Two of the most common myths of cholesterol and being heart healthy
Myth #1: People with high cholesterol have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease
According to (1) The Truth About Cholesterol, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mehment Oz states that fewer than half the people with cardiovascular disease actually have high cholesterol.
So where does this myth come from? The article (2) “The Cholesterol Myth That Is Harming Your Health” tells us that The American Heart Association urges people to keep their cholesterol levels under 200 mg/dL, but it is virtually unrelated to your risk of heart disease unless it is over 300 mg/dL
This is why it is imperative that a person gets their cholesterol checked every five years by a professional, taking into account the different ratios of HDL levels and LDL levels that can complicate these numbers even more.
Myth #2: There are “good” types of cholesterol and “bad” types of cholesterol
While HDL cholesterol has been commonly known as a “good” type of cholesterol, as you can see from above, there are many combinations of cholesterol and their attributes of being good or bad is only determined by their levels and relationships to one another.
Now before you get a headache, Ron Rosedale, MD, who is widely considered the leading anti-aging doctor in the United States, tries to sum this up in The Cholesterol Myth that is Harming our Health (2).
“Notice please that LDL and HDL are lipoproteins — fats combined with proteins. There is only one cholesterol. There is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Cholesterol is just cholesterol. It combines with other fats and proteins to be carried through the bloodstream, since fat and our watery blood do not mix very well.
Fatty substances therefore must be shuttled to and from our tissues and cells using proteins. LDL and HDL are forms of proteins and are far from being just cholesterol.
In fact we now know there are many types of these fat and protein particles. LDL particles come in many sizes and large LDL particles are not a problem. Only the so-called small dense LDL particles can potentially be a problem, because they can squeeze through the lining of the arteries and if they oxidize, otherwise known as turning rancid, they can cause damage and inflammation.
Thus, you might say that there is ‘good LDL’ and ‘bad LDL.’ Also, some HDL particles are better than others. Knowing just your total cholesterol tells you very little. Even knowing your LDL and HDL levels will not tell you very much.”
This statement stresses the importance of getting your cholesterol checked and analyzed by a professional. Ask the right questions and take into account cholesterol’s uses in your body. This leads you to a better understanding of your own diet, risks, and rewards to ensure that your own cholesterol isn’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather, healthy.