When you think cholesterol, do you think bad? Well, at least I do, but did you know our body actually needs cholesterol of function properly. Cholesterol is also necessary to make certain hormones in the body and is regarded as the building blocks for cell walls. But cholesterol is only good for us in moderation, and too much cholesterol can lead to some health issues, including heart disease. Every part of the human body needs cholesterol to function. Most of the cholesterol found in our body is produced by the liver, only a small proportion coming from our diet.
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What exactly is cholesterol?
The liver makes most of the cholesterol our body needs, but only a small proportion comes from the food we eat. Our blood transports the cholesterol from the liver to the other organs and, the spare cholesterol out body is sent back to the liver in the blood. Cholesterol is called “blood fat,” but that is technically incorrect as cholesterol is not fat. Fat is a substance that dissolves in water or blood; something cholesterol does not do. The liver packs the cholesterol into tiny parcels. Cholesterol, proteins, fats (lipids), and other things in our blood make up the parcels. They can be transported through our bodies in the bloodstream because they are mainly made up of lipids and proteins; the parcels are called “lipoproteins.” There are two types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is considered the “bad” cholesterol and HDL as the “good” cholesterol. The general rule of thumb is a high HDL, and low LDL in your blood is considered ideal. High levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, while high LDL cholesterol levels are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
LDL in excess is detrimental for our body as it sticks to the inside of the artery cell walls. Arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart to other areas of the body and the heart itself. The sticking of the cholesterol to the inner artery walls can lead to the build-up of fatty material leading to the formation of an atheroma (fat plaque). This process is called atherosclerosis. This atheroma essentially blocks a part of the artery making it increasingly difficult for the blood to flow through the arteries. This blockage can lead to more dire complications such as a heart attack. A high amount of HDL can keep this bad LDL cholesterol in check and remove it from the body.
Chest pain is a more minor complication of high cholesterol. If the artery that supplies the heart with blood is affected (coronary arteries), you might experience some chest pains, medically known as angina, and other coronary artery diseases symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath and sweating. The complication of high cholesterol that is particularly worrying is a heart attack. If one of the atheromas tear or rupture, a blood clot can form at the rupture site. This blocks the blood flow. The atheroma can also break off and travel downstream and plug an artery further down. If this affects the blood flow to a part of your heart, you’ll get a heart attack.
There are certain lifestyle choices and conditions that put you at a higher risk of developing high cholesterol. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Lack of exercise
- Having a family history of premature coronary heart disease (before 55 for men and before 65 for women)
You have a higher risk of developing heart disease, the more risk factors you have.
High cholesterol is dangerous for many reasons. Diet plays a significant factor in regulating cholesterol levels. Being a healthy weight, eating well, and regularly exercising does not mean you are not at risk of developing high cholesterol. Some people have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol or have risk factors increasing their chances of high cholesterol. There are heart-healthy diets and lifestyle changes that you can make. If you know, you might be at risk of high cholesterol, visit your GP and get a blood test. They will provide you with advice on what to do next.
- 1.British Heart Foundation. High Cholesterol - Causes, Symptoms & Treatments. [Online] Bhf.org.uk. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/risk-factors/high-cholesterol
- 2.Mayo Clinic. High cholesterol - Symptoms and causes. [Online] Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800
- 3.CDC. Cholesterol Myths & Facts. [Online] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/features/cholesterol-myths-facts/index.html