good and bad blood cholesterol

A lot of people initially pay little or no attention to high cholesterol levels and end up being thrown into a state of shock when diagnosed with high cholesterol. High cholesterol does not just develop overnight; it builds up over time and luckily can be controlled with good diet and healthy lifestyle habits.

Although cholesterol is more often than not discussed in negative terms, most of the confusion and negativity surrounding this essential component of the body’s cell membranes is due in great part to the all-purpose use of the term. Though it is true that it plays a notorious role in clogging arteries and thus contributing to coronary artery disease and stroke, cholesterol however remains very essential to the body.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like compound that occurs naturally throughout the body, including the blood, brain, cell walls, nerves, muscles, skin, and most other body tissues and is needed by the body to function properly. The body uses cholesterol to build and repair cells, insulate nerves and manufacture many hormones like the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. It is equally used in the production of Vitamin D and also converted into bile acids which help to digest food.

Notwithstanding all the above functions and others cholesterol performs, it takes only a small amount of cholesterol to meet most of these needs. Cholesterol in the blood has two major sources: 25% of it comes from food intake while 75% is manufactured by the liver.

Dietary cholesterol is obtained mainly from animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and poultry as well as from foods made from animal products. More especially, the amount and type of fat consumed influences blood cholesterol level. Thus, the total amount of cholesterol in the body is significantly increased by the amounts of saturated fatty acids (which obtained mainly from animal produce) and trans fatty acids (fats that have been processed through hydrogenation) consumed.

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While high cholesterol does not cause any symptoms, too much cholesterol in the bloodstream is however a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Over time, too much cholesterol leads to a buildup of plaque inside the arteries that narrow the available space within them thus limiting blood flow. This condition is known as atherosclerosis, and can trigger a heart attack or stroke as it is capable of reducing or cutting off blood supply to the heart or brain.

Cholesterol and triglycerides are fats (lipids) and are generally insoluble in the blood. In order to facilitate their movement through the bloodstream, they are combined with proteins to form what is known as lipoprotein. Lipoproteins are essentially proteins combined with lipids (fats – cholesterol and triglycerides) to make them dissolve in the blood.

There are mixtures of various lipoproteins in blood plasma. Researchers have been able to identify several types of cholesterol-carrying proteins in the blood among which the major ones are: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) also known as "bad" cholesterol; high-density lipoprotein (HDL) known as the "good" cholesterol; and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) which is also a "bad" cholesterol.

Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) – The Bad Cholesterol

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol transports two fatty substances, cholesterol and various triglycerides and is the main cholesterol carrier in the blood. LDLs consist mostly of cholesterol with little amount of proteins. This lipoprotein is also known as the "bad" cholesterol due to the fact that elevated levels clog the arteries increasing the risk of coronary artery disease. Thus, there is a direct correlation between the level of LDL cholesterol and the rate of coronary artery disease.

In determining the blood level of LDL, apart from too much dietary cholesterol intake, the liver has a significant role to play since it manufactures almost 75% of all cholesterol in the body. The liver takes up and degrades more cholesterol than any other organ in the body mostly owing to its large size and a high concentration of LDL receptors. The LDL receptors are basically responsible for the removal of LDL from the blood circulation.

However this cholesterol removal by LDL receptors – displayed on the surface of cells – is dependent on the cell’s demand for cholesterol. Thus, when the demand is low, the cell makes fewer LDL receptors to protect itself against excess cholesterol and therefore reduces its uptake of LDLs. This protective mechanism however causes an accumulation of excess LDL cholesterol in the blood.

High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) – The Good Cholesterol

About a third of blood cholesterol is carried by high-density lipoproteins or HDL. HDL contains a higher concentration of protein than cholesterol. HDLs are referred to as the "good" cholesterol because as they move through the bloodstream, they pick up cholesterol and give the cholesterol to other lipoproteins to transport back to the liver.

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Essentially, HDLs counteract the effect of the "bad" LDL cholesterol by extracting cholesterol from the arterial walls and carrying them back to the liver for removal from the blood. Thus, the higher the level of HDL cholesterol, the better as this protects against atherosclerosis and thus reduces the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The goal therefore should be to have a high HDL cholesterol level and a low LDL cholesterol level to maximize heart health. Eating healthy essential fats, such as olive oil and fish oils can help boost HDL cholesterol levels.

Very Low-Density Lipoprotein (VLDL) – The Bad Cholesterol

Triglycerides are fatty compounds composed of three fatty acids which the body makes from excess calories, sugar, and alcohol and are transported through the blood to fat cells for storage. Like cholesterol, apart from the diet, they are also made by the liver.

Most triglycerides in the blood are transported as very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). Though containing mostly triglycerides, VLDLs also have some amounts of cholesterol. However, when VLDL particles get to the capillaries of adipose (fat-containing) tissues or muscles, the triglycerides are extracted leaving behind a weaker intermediary-density lipoprotein (IDL), which is eventually converted once again into low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Hormones regulate the release of triglycerides from fat tissues to meet the body’s need for energy between meals. While a certain amount of triglyceride in the blood is normal, high levels however may increase the risk of atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome which is equally linked to heart disease as well as diabetes.