How Cholesterol Works
With September being National Cholesterol Education Month, a lot of people are pondering the dangers of high cholesterol. If you are worried about your levels, you should go to the doctor and get a blood cholesterol test. Now, don’t get me wrong, sustained levels of high cholesterol over a long period of time can be detrimental to a person’s heart and arteries; however, before anyone decides to go on a mad cholesterol witch hunt, it is important to note that cholesterol is actually a very important molecule in our bodies. In fact, most of the cholesterol that our bodies require is produced by our livers. The rest is obtained through the foods that we consume throughout the day. Without this cholesterol, our bodies would not be able to perform some of its most basic but necessary functions.
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Once the liver has created the cholesterol, it will be ready to enter the bloodstream and thus be brought to various tissues and organs in the body. Once the cholesterol has arrived at its destination, it will then perform the functions needed at the time. Cholesterol can help strengthen cell membranes, serves as a precursor to all steroid hormones, and it even helps form bile salts which will be used to more effectively digest fat.
Interestingly, cholesterol does not have the ability to enter the bloodstream on its own, because it is a little too fatty to be directly absorbed into the bloodstream. In order for the cholesterol to be transported throughout the body, it must be carried by another protein. The type of protein which transports cholesterol in the blood is known as an apolipoprotein. These apolipoproteins play a very crucial role, for without them, cholesterol would not be able to reach its correct destination. Once the cholesterol gets attached to the apolipoprotein in the liver, it actually becomes a lipoprotein.
Lipoproteins will be formed in different sizes, and depending on their size, they will perform different functions in the body. Interestingly, medical researchers have found that if a lipoprotein has more cholesterol than it does protein, it will be a less stable molecule (a large number of these unstable lipoprotein molecules can put a person at risk for heart disease). Since these lipoproteins can be formed in different sizes, there is actually quite a diversity of different lipoproteins in the human body, each with a very important function.
The high density lipoproteins (HDL) are as the name suggests the heaviest form of lipoproteins. HDLs are primarily responsible for transporting cholesterol from the various tissues and organs back to the liver so that it can be recycled or degraded. Many people will refer to high density lipoproteins as the “good” cholesterol since it has long been associated with better heart health. HDLs also clear excess cholesterol from the bloodstream.
The low density lipoproteins (LDL) are understandably lighter than HDL, and their primary responsibility is bringing the cholesterol from the liver to the organs and tissues of the body. LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol and since this form of lipoprotein actually contains less protein and more lipid, it is also less stable than HDL (LDL’s have a higher chance of breaking apart during their journey). Once they have brought the cholesterol to the organs and tissues, the LDL tends to hang around in the bloodstream. In some instances, the LDL will attach itself to an inflamed vessel. Over time, this can cause a person to develop atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) which can cause heart disease.
The intermediate density lipoprotein (IDL) is actually a little lighter than the LDL cholesterol. They are produced when the very low density lipoproteins (otherwise known as the “very bad” cholesterol because of the detrimental effects it can have on the circulatory system) are broken down. The IDL itself can be broken down even further to create LDL cholesterol particles.
Then finally there are the real little guys which are known as chylomicrons. These molecules are even less than the VLDL and LDL, but they still play an important role. The chylomicrons are formed in the small intestine, and they are responsible for transporting the triglycerides to various tissues in the body.