What comes to mind when you hear the word cholesterol? High blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, Cheerios commercials… Overall it’s a pretty negative connotation, right?
I’m here to change your mind about this misunderstood molecule, because cholesterol isn’t the villain we’ve made it out to be. It’s really quite the hero, actually. A hero who, in trying to save someone, accidentally causes a big mess. You know, rescues the damsel, but knocks over a building in the process. Whoops.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about how cholesterol can be a problem, let’s talk about how awesome and essential it is to our health.
Reason #1 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Cell Membranes
Let’s get something straight: cholesterol can’t be “bad” because it literally makes us who we are. As one of the building blocks of the lipid bilayer that composes our cell membranes, cholesterol provides structural integrity and allows are cells to communicate with one another, which keeps our bodies functioning properly. Healthy cell membranes allow necessary substances in, while keeping harmful substances out, and also exports cellular wastes. Mess with this, and our body’s finally-tuned homeostasis goes haywire.
Reason #2 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Healthy Hormones
Hormones are responsible for everything from metabolism, stress response, reproduction and blood sugar regulation, to name a few. They move throughout the body and send messages to our cells that regulate our complex body systems. To say that hormones are important is an understatement.
Steroid hormones– such as testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol– are synthesized from cholesterol. When cholesterol is limited, sometimes our body has to prioritize which hormones to produce with its limited resources. Since staying alive is more important than reproducing, it’s often the sex hormones that are compromised. Think PMS, irregular menstrual cycles, low libido, and so on. Cholesterol is especially crucial during times of stress, when our body has to boost cortisol production.
Reason #3 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Digestion
Since fat and water don’t mix, our bodies have to emulsify the fats we eat in order to digest and utilize them. That’s where bile comes in. And where does bile come from? You guessed it– cholesterol!
Produced by the gallbladder, bile breaks down large globules of fat into a suspension of smaller globules that can be absorbed during digestion. When bile function is inadequate, it can lead to upset stomach, intestinal irritation, greasy stools, diarrhea and gas. Gross!
Proper fat digestion is also crucial for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Vitamin D deficiencies can cause a range of symptoms from depression, fatigue, muscle weakness, and poor immunity.
Reason #4 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Brain Health
As babies grow in the womb, they require large amounts of cholesterol for proper brain and eye development. Breast milk contains high levels of cholesterol to continue this development after the baby is born. As adults, about 25% of cholesterol in the body is used by the brain. Needless to say, our brains are cholesterol-dependent. Myelin, a substance that forms a protective layer around our nerve cells and nerve fibers, is composed of cholesterol. Cholesterol is also key in synapse formation, allowing brain cells to communicate with each other and form memories. Reduce cholesterol levels too much, and you risk memory loss and learning problems.
Reason #5 Why Cholesterol is Good for You: Healing
When the body needs some healing help, the liver sends cholesterol to the site to get to work. This cholesterol is transported by low-density lipoproteins, commonly known as LDL cholesterol. This so-called “bad” cholesterol is really just the response to something that irritates and inflames the body. Healing damaged cells and the formation of new cells requires plenty of cholesterol because, as we learned in Reason #1, cell membranes are made from cholesterol! LDL cholesterol doesn’t just heal cells, it helps fight infection since immune cells need cholesterol to function properly. After injuries, surgery or during illness, blood cholesterol levels will rise as the body tries to get well again.
After cholesterol has healed a damaged area, it gets shuttled back to the liver by high-density lipoproteins– HDL cholesterol– the so-called “good” cholesterol because it brings cholesterol back to the liver. But really, both types play a necessary role in our overall health.
I hope now you can see how vital cholesterol is.
So vital, our cells have mechanisms to manufacture the cholesterol needed by our bodies when we don’t get enough from our diets. Therefore, we don’t generally have to worry about cholesterol levels getting too low, except during times of stress or sickness when our body is especially taxed. This can be a good time to supplement with extra dietary cholesterol– so eat those eggs! Cholesterol-lowering medications like statin drugs can actually make us more prone to infections, for all the reasons we just discussed.
Now, this doesn’t mean that having elevated cholesterol levels is a good thing. Not because cholesterol itself is damaging to the body, but because high levels are indicative of a bigger problem: systemic inflammation. As we expose ourselves to a slew of chemicals and consume inflammatory foods (sugar, gluten, trans fats, artificial ingredients, etc), cholesterol levels rise in response. We end up blaming the cholesterol for causing the problems just because it’s been found at the scene of the crime. But cholesterol itself isn’t to blame.
What do we do to lower cholesterol levels?
Lowering intake of dietary cholesterol won’t actually do much to lower blood cholesterol levels– if the body needs more, it will simply make more– nor will eating cholesterol-rich foods do much to raise cholesterol levels.
Besides, it’s not about lowering cholesterol directly, it’s about reducing the intake of those foods that cause inflammation, and thus the need for elevated cholesterol levels. The main culprit is the over-consumption of sugar and carbohydrates. Sugars and starches elevate blood sugar levels, which over time can lead to metabolic syndrome, hyperglycemia, insulin resistance and type II diabetes. When your body can’t properly shuttle glucose to the cells or the liver for storage, it roams free in the blood stream, irritating blood vessel walls. Cholesterol tries to heal the damage over and over and over again, therefore cholesterol levels remain high.
The bottom line: cholesterol is good!
High cholesterol levels mean it’s time to make some dietary changes, and not by avoiding foods that contain healthy fats and cholesterol (let’s be clear– hydrogenated/trans fats should be completely avoided). Instead, it’s important to reduce intake of sugars, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, while also making sure to stay active and engaging in some stress-reducing techniques.
Questions or comments? Please post them below!