Learn the Facts: Cholesterol

Learn the functions and uses of cholesterol in the body in order to better comprehend a very commonly misunderstood molecule.

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Most of us have been taught about the evils of cholesterol. Even though too much of a good thing is bad, the fact is the body uses cholesterol to perform many vital functions.

There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. At the doctor, you may see the letters LDL, or low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol), and HDL, high density lipoprotein (good cholesterol). Dr. Oz considers your cholesterol levels to be one of the 5 lifesaving numbers you need to know. However, doctors have different opinions on how “good” and “bad” cholesterol affect the heart and whether taking a cholesterol-lowering drug, like a statin, can help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

In order to figure out what’s right for you, read some facts about cholesterol and get the full picture of this commonly misunderstood molecule.

Where Does Cholesterol Come From?

We get cholesterol primarily from two sources: our food and our body. We manufacture cholesterol naturally all over our body, but mostly in the liver.

Another major source of cholesterol is our diet. You can find high levels of cholesterol in foods like egg yolks, whole milk, liver and some foods high in saturated fat.

Why Is Cholesterol Sometimes Good for You?

Cholesterol serves as a backbone for your cellular membrane. It sticks inside the cell wall, functioning as a support structure.

Your body also uses the cholesterol molecule to make important hormones, like testosterone, estrogen, cortisol and progesterone. Your digestive system also uses cholesterol to build bile acids, which help the body absorb fats and other important nutrients. (Your body does need some fat in order to survive.)

What Are Some Bad Things That Cholesterol Does to Your Body?

Because researchers have noticed a correlation between elevated cholesterol levels and heart disease, many doctors work to decrease one’s cholesterol in order to help keep the heart healthy. However, this concept (of cholesterol being bad for your heart) has been in debate for the past century. There have even been periods of time when some physicians considered cholesterol to be good for your heart (and some physicians still think that way).

The connection between heart disease and cholesterol may be due to its connection with arteriosclerosis. In fact, Dr. Rudolf Virchow, a prominent German pathologist, first proposed that cholesterol was bad for you in 1856. In his “lipid hypothesis,” he proposed that cholesterol and lipids build up on the insides of blood vessels. This clogs and hardens arteries, which increases blood pressure and halts blood flow.

Other studies have shown the heart-healthy benefits of lowering cholesterol by connecting cholesterol-lowering medications, called statins, with a lower rate of heart disease. However, some researchers and clinicians believe the research is still inconclusive, and that there is no strong evidence linking statins to a reduced risk of heart disease – sparking the “cholesterol controversy” of the 1970s and 1980s, which continues today. However, most physicians currently stick to Virchow’s “lipid hypothesis” and prescribe statins and recommend low-cholesterol diets in order to keep one’s heart healthy.

If I’m Concerned About My Cholesterol Levels, What Should I Do?

Talk to your doctor about finding the best ways to keep your cholesterol at healthy levels. She or he can do a blood test to assess the fat and cholesterol levels in your blood. Depending on those results and your other risk factors for heart disease, she or he may recommend taking a cholesterol-lowering medication, like a statin, or using more natural methods of reducing one’s cholesterol levels.

Most physicians will try to keep your LDL levels low, between 50-190 mg/dL, and your HDL levels as high as possible, 30-70 mg/dL in men and 30-90 mg/dL in women.

If your doctor is worried about your heart (i.e. if you have a family history of heart disease or have high blood pressure), he or she may try to keep your cholesterol levels below 150 or 100 mg/dL.

Other things you can do to keep your cholesterol in check without medications include:

Exercise: It not only lowers your bad cholesterol, it increases your good cholesterol as well. Try exercising for at least 30 minutes, three times a week. If you don’t have time to set aside, you can try taking the stairs instead of the elevator or take longer walks to work or between errands.

Eat More Fiber: Oats, beans, okra and barley are rich in soluble fiber, which helps your body eliminate cholesterol. How about starting your day with a bowl of old-fashioned oats? If you choose cold oat cereals, top them with soy milk, almond milk, rice milk or other non-dairy milk.

Try Red Yeast Rice: Around 800 AD in China, it was found that the red yeast cultivated on rice produced healthy compounds. But it was not for another 1200 years that it was discovered that this compound was actually lovastatin – the same compound that is marketed as the cholesterol-lowering prescription drug Mevacor. The compound works to reduce cholesterol production in the liver.

Learn more ways to naturally lower your cholesterol.