Everything You Need to Know About Cholesterol

5 Mins
June 24, 2017

Hello! I am Bezalel Adainoo, the author of Stay Well Now. My friends call me Bez. As a professional food scientist, I have been asked many questions by people from different walks of life seeking the right information on what food to eat and how that will affect their health.

In categorising components of food, cholesterol falls under lipids (fats and oils). Cholesterol is one of the natural food components that has been under the critical lens of many because of the debilitating effect it could have on our health. Nonetheless, it forms part of the cells in the body of humans and animals. It plays essential roles in the formation of hormones in the body which regulate several normal bodily activities. But cholesterol is not an essential dietary requirement. This means you don’t need to eat foods containing cholesterol, because your body makes cholesterol. Your body makes cholesterol in the just the right amounts it needs to keep normal body functions going. Why, then, is cholesterol a health concern? This post tells you all there is about cholesterol and its effects on health. Read on.

Benefits of cholesterol

Cholesterol is very popular for the harm it causes when you have too much of it in your blood. But it has some benefits as well and these include:

  1. The body needs cholesterol to be able to produce vitamin D which helps in the formation of strong bones and teeth.
  2. Cholesterol is used by the liver to produce bile which helps in the breakdown of fats.
  3. Cholesterol helps in the formation of a part of (cell membrane) the body’s cells which helps the cells to keep their shape.
  4. Cholesterol serves as insulation for nerves to protect them from mechanical damage.
  5. Cholesterol is important for the formation of hormones such as cortisol (also known as stress hormone). Cortisol helps you to manage stress by reducing your sensitivity to pain, increasing memory functions and giving you a burst of energy.
  6. Cholesterol is essential for the formation of sex hormones like progesterone, testosterone, oestrogen. These hormones are important for sexual motivation as well as development of the signs of maturity during puberty.

Types of cholesterol

There are really no types of cholesterol. Cholesterol is transported through the blood via vehicles called lipoproteins. These lipoproteins carry cholesterol in different directions which consequently have an effect on your health. There are three main lipoproteins which transport cholesterol in the bloodstream, specifically low density lipoprotein (LDL), high density lipoprotein (HDL) and very low density lipoprotein (VLDL). Though LDL and HDL are the main lipoproteins discussed commonly, all these lipoproteins play crucial roles in cardiovascular health and are the focus for most recommendations made for reducing risk of cardiovascular diseases (such as atherosclerosis and high blood pressure) and other non-communicable diseases like diabetes.

LDL is responsible for carrying cholesterol to the cells in the body while HDL is responsible for carrying cholesterol from the cells to the liver for disposal. VLDL gets converted to LDL while performing its role in the body. HDL is more beneficial than LDL because it helps to control how much cholesterol is present in the bloodstream, making it a healthier option. So cholesterol transported by HDL (HDL cholesterol) is often referred to as good cholesterol whereas that transported by LDL (LDL cholesterol) is commonly known as bad cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is good because it protects you from the harmful effects bad cholesterol could have on your health by removing the bad cholesterol from the blood.

Foods which have been found to increase HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) level include tuna, salmon, sardines, cocoa, sunflower oil, safflower oil, nuts, avocados and legumes (such as soybeans and groundnuts). Also, aerobic exercises, quitting smoking and keeping a healthy weight helps to increase HDL cholesterol levels.

High blood cholesterol

High blood cholesterol (also called hypercholesterolemia or dyslipidemia) is a condition in which there is a high level of cholesterol in the blood. There is no single cause of high blood cholesterol. It may be caused by a combination of factors such as:

  1. Genetics: In some cases, genetic traits for high blood cholesterol may be passed on from parent to offspring. This doesn’t mean the offspring will have the condition automatically.  If the offspring does not eat healthily and live a healthy lifestyle, he or she may end up with the condition.
  2. Diet: Eating foods that are high in saturated fats and very low in fibre. It is often thought that dietary cholesterol affects blood cholesterol level, however, findings from research shows that dietary cholesterol has no effect on the level of blood cholesterol. Eggs do not affect blood cholesterol level in about 70% of population. So eggs may not cause high blood cholesterol.
  3. Smoking: A chemical in cigarettes stop the production of HDL in the body leading to a build-up of cholesterol in the blood.
  4. Lack of physical activity: Engaging in no physical activity or exercises will increase your risk of high blood cholesterol.

The effects of high blood cholesterol

When the level of cholesterol in the blood goes above a certain limit over a long period of time, it can lead to the hardening of blood vessels (a condition called atherosclerosis). This happens because fats and other substances accumulate to form plaque on the inner lining of the blood vessels. Sometimes, some of these plaques on the inner lining of the blood vessels break off and may obstruct blood flow. This may result in heart attack or stroke when the obstruction is in a vessel that supplies blood to the brain or impairment of an organ.

How to prevent or manage high blood cholesterol

Whether you already have the condition or not, it is important to take control of what you have control over before it gets worse or you even get it. There are two main things that play a crucial role in the prevention or management of high blood cholesterol: diet and exercise.

Increasing your intake of foods that increase good cholesterol and reducing intake of foods that increase bad cholesterol are essential in the prevention and management of high blood cholesterol. Foods that increase bad cholesterol include those that are high in saturated fats and trans fats like deep fried foods, pork, margarine, butter, lard, fatty meat and ghee.

Recent studies suggest that foods that are rich in probiotics like yoghurt may increase good cholesterol levels. Increasing fibre intake would also help lower the level of bad cholesterol in the blood. Include fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet. These are excellent sources of soluble fibre which removes cholesterol. Additionally, overeating could increase your risk for high blood cholesterol so you need to eat in moderation.

Exercises increase good cholesterol levels. It is recommended to exercise for 30 minutes 3-5 days a week. Every little bit of exercise counts. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to exercise. You can walk, bike, swim, run, etc. You only need to be consistent to enjoy the benefits.

Certain behaviours which also decrease the level of good cholesterol have to be changed to lower your risk of high blood cholesterol. Behaviours like smoking and skipping meals need to be changed to prevent or manage high blood cholesterol.

In a nutshell, cholesterol could be harmful. However, it has some benefits too. Combining healthy eating habits and a physically active lifestyle are essential for the prevention of the harmful effects of cholesterol.

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