Is Cholesterol Bad?

Cholesterol is typically portrayed as a villain; the main culprit and leading cause of cardiovascular disease. It is commonly believed that having high cholesterol is a bad thing.  But what is cholesterol really?  Why does it have such a negative reputation?  If cholesterol is so bad, why do our bodies synthesize it?  

Cholesterol is a type of waxy fat that is actually important to the body. There are two versions of cholesterol to look at when doing a blood panel. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as “good cholesterol”, and it carries excess cholesterol to your liver to be expelled from your body.  Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad cholesterol” because it carries cholesterol through the bloodstream and is known to produce “fatty streaks.”  Fatty streaks are fat deposits in arteries that are a precursor to cardiovascular disease.  An individual could have “high cholesterol”, but if their HDL is the majority of their cholesterol then they have no cause for alarm.  Those with a higher amount of LDL than HDL are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke.

A major way to decrease your LDL levels and raise your HDL levels is to be conscious of the foods you eat. Coconut oil and olive oil are some of the healthiest fats you can ingest as they are linked to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Replace vegetable and corn oil with these healthier choices net time you are in the kitchen. High intensity workouts are also an effective way to raise HLD levels as well as decreasing risk of cardiovascular disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, Niacin (vitamin B3) in the form of nicotinic acid helps to increase HDL levels and decrease LDL levels, however patients who are known to have problems with gout should be careful in using niacin as it can increase uric acid levels in the body and possibly lead to a gout flare-up.

So why do we need cholesterol? Cholesterol is not found floating around in your bloodstream – that would be like saying chunks of the food you eat is found floating in your bloodstream.  The food we absorb needs a place to go, but has to use the bloodstream as the highway to get to the side streets of your body to deliver the specific packages of nutrients for proper bodily functions. Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body – it is important for producing hormones, vitamin D, bile acids (which help in fat digestion), and it is also needed to produce cell membranes.  It is important to keep in mind that your brain needs cholesterol; the brain is 60% fat and 25% of that fat is cholesterol.  This study showed that patients with higher cholesterol levels had better memory function.  

So HDL is good because it gets rid of cholesterol, and LDL is bad because it carries cholesterol through the body…so we should shoot for a very low level of LDL and increase our HDL…right? But what happens when you don’t have enough overall cholesterol? A 2016 study of 510,392 participants showed those with very low LDL levels had an increased risk of anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies and successful suicide attempts. Lack of cholesterol can disrupt hormone production in both men and women, as it is the precursor to all the mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, and sex steroids such as estrogen and testosterone. It can also negatively impact your ability to digest fats as cholesterol is needed to create bile acids. Furthermore, lack of cholesterol can lead to a vitamin D deficiency. In order for your skin to synthesize vitamin D from the sun you need cholesterol – without cholesterol the sun touching your skin is of no use. A lack of vitamin D has been linked to depression as well as other very serious health concerns. 

There are also misconceptions about who is affected by high cholesterol.  According to the American Heart Association (AHA), many believe that thin people never have high cholesterol, high cholesterol is only a problem found in males, you don’t need your cholesterol to be checked until you are middle-aged, and your diet and physical activity are the only factors that dictate your cholesterol level. Anyone, whether they be sedentary or an athlete, man or woman or child, can have high cholesterol.

Too much or too little of anything is typically not good.  It is always about keeping a balance.  Don’t be scared of the word cholesterol. It is important for anyone of any age and gender to take control of their health and make sure they are aware of their good and bad cholesterol levels.

If you want to learn more about cholesterol and healthy living, contact the SCNM Medical Center.