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Understanding Cholesterol as a Health Issue

Why Your Cholesterol Level Matters

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Staying in good health is an important goal to everyone who knows that it's a prerequisite for most other human activities. That's why healthy living has become a subject of interest to those who seek to achieve in various aspects of life and who appreciate the need to be in top shape for top performance.

Increasingly, cholesterol is attracting interest as a medical issue in our enviroment. As dietary changes continue with the seeming explosion in outdoor on-the-go food sources, the impact on such health parameters as cholesterol level is beginning to tell. Yet not many understand what cholesterol really stands for, let alone any major implications it has for their health. So, let's attempt to break it down, so you can appreciate how and why your cholesterol level should matter to you.

What Cholesterol Is

Cholesterol is a substance that occurs naturally in our bodies. It is a fatty substance (called a lipid) that is usally in the outer lining of body cells and also in the blood circulation. In terms of appearance, it's waxy, and interestingly, the body requires it for normal functioning. Cholesterol is one of the steroids (fat-soluble, biologically active compounds) in the body.

So, how does cholesterol get into the body? Two primary sources can be identified: from dietary intake and body production in the liver. In effect, the body, by itself, produces some measure of cholesterol but much can also be accumulated from the food types we consume. Certain food items are identified as heavy sources of cholesterol and we'll be looking at this shortly. The converse is true, also - some food types contain little or no cholesterol. Vegetables and other plant food sources are generally cholesterol-free.

The Value/Benefits of Cholesterol?

If the body naturally produces cholesterol, does it use it? Put differently, is cholesterol of any value? The answer is 'yes'. The body uses minute quantities of cholesterol for certain activities. Cholesterol is important in certain steroid hormone synthesis, in the synthesis of vitamin D and also of bile acids. You probably know that bile has a key role in the digestion and absorption of fat in the intestine. Cholesterol injected into the blood stream by the liver travels through the body where cells that need it absorb what they require. It is therefore important to the body, especially in being used to construct cell tissues, and make certain hormones like testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. It is also important to the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord where it's part of the insulation covering them. Yet, it's only small quantities that the body requires and uses.

The Risks Associated With Cholesterol

Because cholesterol is absorbed into the body from certain food sources in addition to what the body produces, the likelihood of excess cholesterol level arises. The reason this is of concern is that excess cholesterol in the bloodstream eventually gets deposited in the arteries, increasingly clogging them. That is more dangerous with the coronary arteries that supply the heart. More narrowing and possible blocking of these arteries could easily lead to heart disease. That's the big risk. Put simply, cholesterol is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. For those who have some degree of exposure to other risk factors of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, smoking or family history, it accentuates the risk of heart disease, heart failure or stroke.

Types of Cholesterol

Okay, all cholesterol is cholesterol, but three different cholesterol complexes have been isolated. These are low density lipoprotein, LDL (the "bad" cholesterol), high density lipoprotein, HDL (the "good" cholesterol), and very low density lipoprotein (VLDL).

The good news: not all cholesterol is potentially harmful. It is the LDL that ends up clogging and blocking arteries, with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) as the result. It causes the formation of a hard, thick substance called cholesterol plaque. In time, cholesterol plaque will result in the thickening of the artery walls and narrowing of the arteries. A subsequent rupture of the cholesterol plaque may lead to blot clot formation which results in heart attack. Stroke is also a risk. LDL is the cholesterol complex to watch out for!

The HDL is the good cholesterol. This cholesterol type in fact does the opposite job of helping to prevent the build-up of fat in the walls of the arteries. They are the cholesterol that performs the positive functions listed as benefits of cholesterol, above.

For both the positive role of the HDL and the serious potential harm of LDL, knowing about your cholesterol status becomes an important health interest. Keeping LDL within a safe range should be one of your health goals, given the dangers of an excess level.

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