Perhaps one of the biggest health myths propagated in western culture and certainly in the United States, is the correlation between elevatedcholesterol and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Unfortunately, despite dozens of studies, cholesterol has not been shown to actually cause CVD. To the contrary, cholesterol is vital to our survival, and trying to artificially lower it can have detrimental effects, particularly as we age.
Cholesterol seems to be one of those things that strikes fear into the hearts of many, so to speak. We have become obsessed with eating foods low in cholesterol and fat. Ask almost anyone, and they can tell you their cholesterol levels.
What is certain is that the 'little knowledge' that the media often imparts means many folks assume cholesterol is simply a 'bad' thing. Alternately, a good number of us may have heard the terms 'good' cholesterol and 'bad' cholesterol bandied about without knowing much about what this really means. In fact it is a fairly safe bet that if you asked anyone on the street for his or her instinctive response, if asked about cholesterol, they would probably say that we simply need to 'reduce it'.
The 'noddy-science' offered by marketing men to a generally scientifically-naive public has led many people to believe that we should replace certain food choices with specially developed products that can help 'reduce cholesterol'. Naturally this comes at a price and requires those who can afford it to pay maybe four or five times what a 'typical ordinary' product might cost. But is this apparent 'blanket need' to strive towards lowering our cholesterol justified? And, indeed, is it healthy?
For anyone who has had the official diagnosis of 'high cholesterol' in their bloodstream, they may even have embarked upon a program of medicinal intervention. In fact it is quite likely that they may have joined the legions of long-term pill-poppers who are already lining the pockets of the profit-oriented pharmaceutical giants.
But let's take a moment, now, to review some of the facts and fallacies about the much-maligned substance: cholesterol.
Cholesterol is needed to make hormones. Without it we would not produce estrogen, progesterone or testosterone. It is vital for the functioning of nerve synapses and provides the structural integrity for our cell membranes. Cholesterol is used by the skin to help prevent water evaporation and to make our skin waterproof. Vitamin D is synthesized from cholesterol. And bile, used for fat digestion, consists mostly of cholesterol. The liver produces about 90 percent of the cholesterol in our bodies; only 10 percent comes from diet. If we eat too much cholesterol, the liver decreases the output of cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring lipid. This means it is a type of fat or oil and it is in fact an essential component in creating and sustaining the membranes of the cells of all bodily tissues. So this alone means we need cholesterol to survive! Most of the cholesterol that is found in our bodies is actually naturally manufactured within our own cells. However there is also an additional contribution that we get from external 'nutritional' sources - the foods we consume. In a typical diet providing around 400mg of cholesterol per day from food sources, about half to two-thirds of this amount is actually absorbed through the process of digestion. The body will normally secrete about a gram (1000mg) of cholesterol per day into the bile via the ducts, and approximately three-fifths of this is then re-absorbed.
Where our tissues or organs are a particularly dense complex of cells, which have closely packed cell membranes, there will naturally be higher levels of cholesterol. The key organs that need, and contain, these higher amounts of cholesterol include the liver, the brain and the spinal cord - none of which would work well if we reduced cholesterol too much!
In effect cholesterol plays an essential role in the development and maintenance of healthy cell walls. It is also a critical factor in the synthesizing of steroid hormones, which are a key factor in our natural physical development.
Being a lipid, cholesterol is fat-soluble, but it is not soluble in blood. However it needs to be transported around the body to the places where it can be utilized. This is why, in order to be moved around, it must become 'associated' with certain lipoproteins which feature a water-soluble (therefore 'blood transportable') coat of proteins. There are two key types of lipoproteins that transport cholesterol around the body: low-density and high-density variants. The essential cellular function of cholesterol requires that sufficient amounts are manufactured by specialized sub-systems (or organelles) within the body's cells called the endoplasmic reticulum. Alternatively, the cholesterol we need must be derived from our diet. During the process of 'digestion and assimilation' of foods, it is the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) that carries dietary cholesterol from the liver to various parts of the body.
When there is sufficient cholesterol for cellular needs, the other key transport mechanism in this amazing 'logistics system' - high-density lipoprotein (HDL) - can take cholesterol back to the liver from where any unnecessary excess can be processed for excretion.
The 'noddy-science' of the so-called 'functional food' manufacturers would have us believe that there is such a thing as 'bad' cholesterol and 'good' cholesterol. This is, in fact, totally untrue. The cholesterol itself, whether being transported by LDL or HDL, is exactly the same. Cholesterol is simply a necessary ingredient that is required to be regularly delivered around the body for the efficient healthy development, maintenance and functioning of our cells. The difference is in the 'transporters' (the lipoproteins HDL and LDL) and both types are essential for the human body's delivery logistics to work effectively.
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