What Is Cholesterol, Its Function And How Is It Made?

For a long time now I have been wanting to give you this information about Cholesterol. What exactly is it and what does it do? Our friends at Viridian Nutrition gave us the following information:

Cholesterol is made in the body mainly by the liver. This is often called “blood cholesterol”. The body can produce all the cholesterol it needs to carry out its many functions and can usually maintain a healthy level of blood cholesterol. However, sometimes the balance goes wrong and there is an increase in blood cholesterol. This may result from inherited problems or from eating too much saturated (animal) fat, lack of exercise and, who would have thought, STRESS!

Let’s break down these factors a little:

Some foods such as eggs, liver and shellfish contain cholesterol but the amount in these foods does not greatly affect the amount of cholesterol in our blood. You can eat foods that contain cholesterol in moderation as part of a healthy and varied diet. An egg a day is fine. But a reduced intake of essential fatty acids, omega 3 in particular as found in fish and flax and hemp seed oil for example, can cause an increase in the liver’s production of cholesterol.

Cholesterol does have benefits:

Cholesterol is an integral and very important part of our cells’ membranes, contributing to making the cell wall sturdy and firm. Without it, the cell would be flabby and fluid. If the cell is part of a protective barrier, it will have a lot of cholesterol, depending on its function and purpose. Blood vessels that are usually medium to large and need to withstand high pressure and turbulence of blood flow, will have a larger percentage of cholesterol in order to make the blood vessels stronger, tougher and more rigid. These layers of cholesterol are called “fatty streaks”. Various indigenous populations around the world, who never suffered heart disease, have been found to have plenty of fatty streaks in their blood vessels. They are completely normal and form in all of us, starting from birth.

What about Brain Function?

Our brains are particularly rich in cholesterol. Around 25% of all the body cholesterol is taken by the brain. Every cell and every structure in the brain and the rest of the nervous system needs cholesterol. Not only to build itself but also to accomplish its many functions. One of the most abundant materials in the brain and the rest of the nervous system is a fatty substance called myelin, which coats every nerve cell and every fiber. Just like an insulating cover around the electric wires at home. Apart from insulation, it provides nourishment and protection for every tiny structure in our brain and the rest of our nervous system. People who start losing their myelin sheet develop a condition called multiple sclerosis. And guess what? 20% of myelin is made of ….cholesterol. The synthesis of myelin in the brain is tightly connected with the synthesis of cholesterol.

The ability of the brain to function and support memory retention is dependent on the quality of fat it is composed of and also on its cholesterol content. Memory loss is one of the side effects of cholesterol lowering drugs that will be commonly listed. Therefore dietary ingestion of omega rich oils such as Flax/Linseed oil will ensure that adequate fats are provided for its function.

Who else wants cholesterol?

After the brain, the organs hungriest for cholesterol are our endocrine glands: adrenals and sex glands. They produce steroid hormones. These steroids in the body are made from cholesterol, i.e. Testosterone, Progesterone, Androsterone, Estradiol, Estrone, Aldosterone, Corticosterone, Pregnenolone….and some others. These hormones accomplish a myriad of functions in the body. From regulation of our metabolism, energy production, mineral assimilation, brain, muscle and bone formation to behavior, emotions and reproduction.

And here it comes:

Our stressful modern lives lead to an increased demand of these hormones. This in turn results in an increased demand for and production of cholesterol within the body. Makes sense right?

Let’s look at stress hormones:

Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are made of cholesterol. Stressful situations (physical, emotional and mental stress) increase our blood cholesterol levels because cholesterol is being sent to the adrenal glands for stress hormone production. Apart from that, while under stress, there is a storm of free radicals and other damaging biochemistry in the blood. Therefore, specific it can be very beneficial to add certain supplements acting as so called antioxidants to our daily diets. Some of those you might have heard of, namely Resveratrol , Co-enzyme Q10, the amino acid L-Carnitine and Flaxseed Oil. All these have beneficial effects on our cardiovascular system and may aid in keeping a healthy cholesterol level.

So, when is cholesterol high?

Your cholesterol can be measured by a blood test, usually by a doctor who would probably also know your family history.

If your results show a blood cholesterol level greater than five mmol/l (the measurement used for cholesterol levels) or if your doctor is concerned about your HDL or LDL cholesterol, they will arrange another test most likely. You will need to fast for 12 hours to get more information on your HDL and LDL levels.

If you already have had a heart attack, bypass surgery or angioplasty it is very important to keep your LDL below 2.6 mmol/l or as recommended by your health practitioner. As well as HDL and LDL levels, the test will also show your Triglyceride levels. This is another type of fat.

This is and example of healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels:

Total Cholesterol: 5 or lower

LDL Cholesterol: 3 or lower

HDL Cholesterol: 1 or higher

Triglycerides: 2 or lower

How can I lower my cholesterol?

  • Maintain a healthy weight – carrying too much weight means that your heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body.
  • Eat oily fish (mackerel, sardines) twice a week.
  • Include Flax or Hemp Seed oil, 2 teaspoons per day as a lifestyle change. That means, now and forever.
  • Eat more fruit and veg. But you know that already.
  • Trim fat off meat and skin off chicken.
  • Choose to only have sugar as a very rare treat on really special occasions. Really, sugar is not good in big amounts, but you know this already too.
  • Cook with good quality and unrefined oils that are stable at high temperatures such as Coconut Oil and Olive Oil.
  • Include antioxidants specific to the cardiovascular system such as Resveratrol, Coenzyme Q10, L-Carnitine, Vitamin C, Green Tea or others.
  • And here it comes again: REDUCE STRESS such as physical, mental and emotional stressors.

That, of course, is a whole new topic and shall be discussed here at a future point in time. But as a start, look at your life and become aware of the stress in your life. Once we recognize it, there is already so much we can do.

I truly hope you find this article interesting and look forward to your own stories and comments.