Cholesterol is a popular buzzword that’s frequently cited on health blogs and news outlets. Incredibly, scientists have been aware of it for almost three hundred years, but there’s still plenty of misinformation circling the Internet, with some confusion about precisely what is cholesterol.
So does the scientific evidence really suggest it’s bad for you? And what effect does this substance have on the human body?
What is cholesterol?
Technically, cholesterol is a lipid (fat) that’s found in most of your body’s tissues. It’s vital for synthesising vitamin D and more surprisingly oestrogen and testosterone. Cholesterol also helps your body absorb vitamins A, E and K (a lesser-known vitamin that’s vital for blood clotting, getting wounds to heal faster). It has a white, slightly waxy appearance and was first discovered by French doctor François Poulletier de la Salle, who noticed white crystals in gallstones.
Your liver and other organs including the intestines naturally produce most of the cholesterol in your body. This type of cholesterol is referred to as ‘blood cholesterol’ and accounts for about 70% of your total cholesterol. However, it can also be found in foods like cheese, shrimp and eggs, referred to as ‘dietary cholesterol’.
Diet is thought to have some impact on your blood cholesterol, with trans fats and saturated fats actually believed to have significantly more impact on blood cholesterol levels than your intake of dietary cholesterol.
Is cholesterol bad for you?
The short answer is no: it’s a substance your body needs, but like anything you can have too much. There are several different types of cholesterol; High Density Lipoproteins (HDLs) and Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs). LDLs are also known as ‘bad cholesterol’, as although they carry cholesterol to the cells that need it, they can build up, clogging and narrowing arteries, which can lead to a higher risk of heart disease, along with other factors.
On the other hand, HDLs are known as ‘good cholesterol’. They carry LDLs away from your cells back to the liver, which breaks it down effectively. It’s also thought that they can repair your blood vessels, and people with higher levels of HDLs typically have a lower risk of heart disease.
How to manage cholesterol?
There are plenty of pervasive myths about cholesterol, like the idea that a highly restrictive diet or intensive exercise regime are necessary to keep it in control. In reality it’s not that difficult, with some simple changes helping to keep your cholesterol levels balanced. These include:
- Eating a balanced diet with lots of HDL-boosting foods, like oats, apples, rice and beans.
- Exercising regularly. Either at the gym or at home, pick something you enjoy doing and get stuck in. Spend a portion of each day on the rowing machine or exercising on pull up bars.
- Quitting smoking. As well as its other negative health effects, smoking can stop cholesterol circulating around the body properly and lead to narrower arteries and potential heart problems so it’s a good idea to quit now.
Still feeling confused about exactly what is cholesterol and how you can manage it? You can find out more on the health implications from the experts at ProActiv here.