Cholesterol usually gets a bad rap. Everyone seems to know about the health problems it can cause, such as coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis, but few realize that a small amount is actually good for us. Cholesterol is essential for many of the body’s functions; without it, we couldn’t survive.
As the name suggests, cholesterol is a steroid, and a member of the lipid (another name for fat) family. Present in most animals, cholesterol is produced in the liver and clings to special molecules called lipoproteins. It travels throughout the bloodstream, where it is used by our tissues to perform several important duties:
- Creates Vitamin D, which is critical in maintaining teeth and bones.
- Produces sex hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.
- Assists the body in absorbing essential fats from our food.
- Helps cell growth.
Although our bodies create all the cholesterol we need, we also intake more when we consume fatty foods. Therefore, many of the lipoproteins that transport cholesterol through our blood are not used. So what happens with the excess? It’s handled by the body in two very different ways:
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) accumulate on the walls of the arteries, possibly building up to the point where it may result in a blockage. This can lead to blood clots and stroke. Experts refer to LDL as bad cholesterol because of the damage it can cause.
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL) take unused cholesterol back to the liver, where it’s transformed into bile acids and excreted. HDL is called good cholesterol because many believe it eliminates LDL from the arteries.
Health professionals measure blood cholesterol in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) and recommend that our body’s total blood cholesterol level be kept below 200mg/dL. In addition, they suggest an LDL level between 100-129mg/dL and an HDL level above 60mg/dL.
If you have high blood cholesterol, or just want to avoid potential problems, there are several things you can do to help bring down your LDL level:
- Watch what you eat. Reducing your intake of foods high in saturated fats such as pork, beef, butter, and cheese can assist in lowering LDL. Also, cut back on organ meats, including liver and kidney. In addition, make sure you remove any visible fats from meats and try broiling and baking instead of frying.
- Exercise. Increasing your activity on a regular basis can decrease LDL and increase HDL. Find a reasonable fitness regimen you can stick with so you won’t get bored and quit.
- Lose excess weight. If you’re overweight, shedding those extra pounds may help you control your blood cholesterol. But choose your diet carefully. Some popular weight-loss plans involve the consumption of foods with significant amounts of saturated fat, and may not be effective in lowering LDL.
- Eliminate smoking. Combined with an elevated blood cholesterol level, it can increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Before trying any of these suggestions, please speak to your doctor and determine the most appropriate solution for your situation.
Cholesterol has its benefits, but it will always be seen as a serious threat to our bodies. However, most people who suffer from high blood cholesterol still manage to live normal lives. They, with the aid of their physicians, control their problem by using one of the several prescription drugs on the market, and by making permanent lifestyle changes.