by Michele Carelse on October 6th, 2011 at 7:00 am
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in all parts of our bodies, known as a lipid. It is mostly produced by the liver from the fatty foods we eat, as these food products contain cholesterol. It’s important to understand that the body needs cholesterol at the right levels, making it vital for our health and well-being.
How is cholesterol good for us?
Nature does not waste, therefore because cholesterol is a natural-forming substance, it is important to remember that it is there for a reason. Believe it or not, when cholesterol is at the right level, there are numerous important functions it is responsible for:
- It is needed to build cell membranes – making sure that enough oxygen and nutrients get in while ensuring that the waste products get out.
- It allows cells to be flexible – our body temperature fluctuates depending on what we expose ourselves too, requiring our cells to remain fluid across a large temperature range; cholesterol is what allows our cells to remain flexible.
- It helps our body to produce bile – bile is an alkali fluid (i.e. the opposite to acidic), that is produced by our liver and stored in the gallbladder until required in the stomach to help breakdown fatty acids, such as that hamburger we could not resist.
- It is an integral part of healthy conception – healthy levels of cholesterol help in the production of the sex hormone progesterone.
When is cholesterol bad for us?
As with most things in life, excess often equals problems. When elevated levels of cholesterol occur in the bloodstream (hyperlipidemia) this can lead to severe consequences, with continued elevated levels increasing one’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke. High levels of cholesterol can result in blocked arteries, leading to atherosclerosis (the thickening of plaque building up in the inner lining of the artery).
GOOD Cholesterol vs BAD Cholesterol
Being a fat-soluble substance, cholesterol cannot travel around the body on its own as it cannot dissolve in water. For this reason, it is carried around the bloodstream by molecules known as lipoproteins. As many of us will already know, cholesterol is generally termed using LDL and HDL – the two main lipoproteins:
1. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the main cholesterol carrier and transports cholesterol from our liver to the cells that need it. If there is an over-supply and the cells can’t use it all, a buildup occurs in the blood, turning potentially harmful. Too much LDL cholesterol in the blood can cause a buildup in the artery walls, leading to disease of the arteries. For this reason, LDL is considered ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower levels are considered better.
2. High-density cholesterol (HDL) carries cholesterol way from the cells and back to the liver, where it is either broken down or passed through the body as waste. This is considered ‘good’ cholesterol and higher levels are understood to be healthier.
How is cholesterol tested?
The amount of cholesterol, both LDL and HDL, in our blood can be measured using a blood test. Your doctor or nurse may also test your levels of triglycerides (the fats we use for energy that come from the fatty foods we eat). In fact triglycerides are the most common fats digested by humans. While these fats are a source of energy to help transport fat molecules around the body, excess fat is stored in the fatty tissues of the body. Excess triglycerides in the blood also increase heart problems.
Know the numbers – what do they mean?
As a general guideline, health professionals surmise that healthy cholesterol levels are 180 mg/dL or less. The measurement mg/dL refers to milligram per deciliter. In other words, this gives the number of milligrams (thousands of a gram) of cholesterol molecules per deciliter (tenths of a liter) of blood. The number 180, or sometimes 200, is a generally accepted number that helps doctors to rate your risk based on problems people have had at those levels. For example, those with a cholesterol reading of 240mg/dL are considered to be at double the risk compared to those who have a 200mg/dL reading.
Your cholesterol result should give you four numbers; your total level, your LDL and HDL along with your triglyceride levels.
- LDL levels – healthy readings are considered to be 100mg/d L or less.
- HDL levels – to an extent, the higher the level the better; less than 40 mg/dL for men and 50mg/dL for women is considered unhealthy. Over 60 mg/dL is optimal.
- Triglycerides – a normal level is less than 150mg/dL.
Each of these levels can be affected by how we treat our bodies, from the food we eat, the chemicals we put into our bodies and the amount of exercise we do.
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