Cholesterol has long been a topic of discussion when it comes to health, and it is surrounded by a fair share of misconceptions.
Many people believe that cholesterol is inherently bad, should be avoided, and serves no positive role in the human body. However, cholesterol is actually a vital component for our overall well-being and plays several important roles in our physiological processes. In this article, we aim to dispel some of the misunderstandings surrounding cholesterol by addressing common questions and providing accurate information.
To begin, let’s define what cholesterol truly is. According to the definition provided in my Human Anatomy & Physiology book, cholesterol is a lipid, or fat-like compound, produced by body cells. It serves as a building block for synthesizing steroid hormones and is excreted into the bile. This unbiased definition reveals that cholesterol has crucial functions in the body, and it is not solely a negative substance, as often believed.
Contrary to the misconception that having zero cholesterol is ideal, humans cannot survive without it. Cholesterol plays a vital role in our health, contributing to cellular function, tissue repair, and hormone production. It is important to note that cholesterol is not solely derived from the food we eat; approximately 80% of cholesterol is produced by our bodies, while only around 20% comes directly from dietary sources. This means that even if you were to eliminate high-cholesterol foods from your diet, your body would continue to produce cholesterol as needed.
Many individuals are concerned about their cholesterol levels and seek to lower them through dietary changes. However, it is essential to understand that cholesterol is not solely a result of dietary intake. Factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and overall health influence cholesterol levels. Therefore, diet alone may not be sufficient to lower cholesterol, especially if it is predominantly produced by your body.
When discussing cholesterol levels, it is important to understand the significance of individual cholesterol markers beyond the total cholesterol number. Here is a breakdown of the different components:
- Total cholesterol: This number is a sum of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and 20% of triglycerides. It is important to note that the total cholesterol number alone does not provide enough information to make accurate assessments of your cholesterol profile.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein): Known as “good” cholesterol, HDL helps remove “bad” cholesterol from the bloodstream and transports it back to the liver. Higher levels of HDL are desirable and can protect against cardiovascular diseases. For both men and women, HDL levels should ideally be over 60mg/dL. Foods such as wild-caught salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed oil can help increase HDL levels.
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein): Often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, LDL levels can increase with a poor diet, lack of exercise, and high levels of stress. Elevated LDL levels have been linked to work-related stress. A healthy diet, stress reduction techniques, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep are important for managing LDL levels. The conventional medicine target for LDL is generally less than 100mg/dL.
- VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein): Primarily composed of triglycerides, VLDL levels can provide valuable insights when assessing cholesterol profiles. A VLDL value less than 19 is considered optimal for a healthy individual.
- Triglycerides: These are created when our bodies do not immediately utilize the energy from the food we consume. Triglycerides are stored in adipose/fat tissue as a form of energy reserve. High triglyceride levels can be influenced by factors such as a diet high in sugar, frequent snacking, and late-night eating. Strategies such as intermittent fasting, low-carbohydrate diets, and reducing processed foods and sugars can help lower triglyceride levels.
If you have been informed that your cholesterol levels are high, it is crucial to obtain the individual numbers for HDL, LDL, triglycerides, and VLDL. These numbers will provide a more comprehensive understanding of your cholesterol profile. Discussing these results with your healthcare provider or practitioner will help determine the appropriate course of action, whether it involves dietary adjustments, supplementation, or lifestyle changes.
Furthermore, it is essential to consider the trend of your cholesterol levels over time rather than focusing solely on a single test result. Evaluating trends in your labs can provide more meaningful insights into your overall health. If you have not had your cholesterol labs done in several years, it is recommended to establish multiple follow-up labs to assess the trend accurately.
In conclusion, understanding cholesterol involves dispelling common misconceptions and acknowledging its essential role in our bodies. Cholesterol is not inherently bad but rather serves important functions in our cells, hormones, and overall health. By comprehending the different cholesterol markers and discussing your specific cholesterol profile with a healthcare professional, you can gain a more accurate understanding of your cardiovascular health and make informed decisions to support your well-being. Remember that total cholesterol alone does not provide sufficient information, and it is essential to consider individual cholesterol components and their interplay in your overall health.