I love cholesterol and so should you. After all, these molecules course through our blood, the intrinsic river of life, fulfilling a variety of essential functions for our body. With a proper understanding of the essential functions of these substances, it seems bizarre that cholesterol and triglycerides have been made into a wicked sludge that only deposits in our arteries, causing heart attacks and strokes. I believe it is time to respect cholesterol for the good it does and this will perhaps foster more respect for our body in general.
Let's review some of the routine functions made possible by cholesterol molecules. You may find yourself surprised by the amazing diversity of this substance we have long been taught to fear.
Every time you stand upright without losing consciousness, thank your cholesterol molecules
Cholesterol is turned into adrenal hormones. These hormones control blood pressure response and electrolyte balance that support our blood pressure when we stand.
Cholesterol molecules indirectly control our "fight or flight response"
You may have heard of epinephrine and norepinephrine, two adrenal hormones that are created from cholesterol molecules. These hormones allow us to fight or take flight in dangerous situations.
Cholesterol molecules determine both our sexual identity and sexual function
This is because cholesterol molecules are transformed into estrogen and testosterone.
Cholesterol improves brain function (memory, happiness and nerve conduction)
Cheer up, cholesterol molecules are needed for proper function of the "feel good" neurotransmitters (serotonin and dopamine).
Our brain is the organ with the highest density of cholesterol molecules because myelin is made from cholesterol. Myelin is the fatty sheath that wraps around our nerves and allows them to transmit impulses at nearly instantaneous speeds.
Cholesterol maintains the integrity of the trillions of cells in our body
Cholesterol molecules are inserted into the cell membrane to enhance integrity and function. Without cholesterol, our cells would essentially turn to mush. Cholesterol also enhances intracellular communication thereby making us a more cohesive biological being.
Let's not forget about Triglycerides
Triglycerides are essential elements to our energy use. They serve as fuel for muscle function or are stored as fat for later use.
How did cholesterol and triglycerides, molecules so essential and valuable to our lives, become villainous entities?
The reason cholesterol transporting molecules (such as LDL, VLDL and HDL) and triglyceride molecules became household names and objects worthy of control is because pharmaceutical companies created ways to manipulate (or treat) the levels of these substances in our blood. But this therapeutic focus was insincere.
Our risk of heart disease and stroke is less determined by the absolute levels of the various lipoprotein molecules (LDL, HDL, VLDL etc), but instead by the way we treat our bodies in general.
I like to think of lipoprotein molecules such as HDL, LDL and VLDL as complex biological tissue intimately linked to my other tissues and metabolism in general. LDL and the other transport molecules are not simply bubbles of cholesterol that passively float through our blood stream, but are rather very complex, active molecules that allow us to live life to the fullest by transporting cholesterol very precisely to where it is used best under ever-changing conditions.
Unhealthy lifestyles such as smoking, being overweight, remaining sedentary, or the consumption of manufactured foods tends to create unnecessary inflammation which then corrupts (oxidizes) our healthy LDL, VLDL, and HDL molecules, as well as our other tissues. Pro-inflammatory lifestyles are known to corrupt blood vessels so that the malfunctioning (oxidized) LDL molecules are then absorbed abnormally and cause atherosclerotic plaque. Simply put, it is not the molecules themselves that cause harm, but our lifestyles that turn our good tissue into bad tissue. This is why the American Heart Association recommends some people with relatively low cholesterol be placed on very potent statin medications (cholesterol pills such as Zocor, Lipitor, Crestor and others).
Conversely, people who engage in healthier lifestyles, are proactive, and remove risk factors from their life are not likely to benefit from statin drugs even though they may have a relatively high cholesterol number. Their tissues are not corrupted and therefore the likelihood of heart attack and stroke is less than the potential harms of statin medications. Those harms can be (but not limited to) muscle inflammation, liver disease, type 2 diabetes and memory impairment. Perhaps the worst side effect is the delusion that health can be achieved through a pill.
The latest "cholesterol guidelines" are indeed confusing for many people because they deemphasize cholesterol levels as being the focus of cholesterol medication therapy in general, as described below:
1) Drugs other than the statin class of cholesterol pills have not been proven to prevent strokes and heart attacks and therefore are not to be used despite the fact that they lower one's cholesterol numbers.
2) Routine cholesterol checks and screenings must now be discouraged because the levels are not thought to be as important as other modifiable risk factors. It is presumed that the statin medication's ability to stop oxidation of vascular tissues is the most important function in preventing heart attacks and strokes, although no one really knows. Therefore once the decision to place a person on a statin medication is made, the absolute concentration of cholesterol molecules in their blood becomes less relevant.
Most assuredly, our nation's preoccupation with biochemical tests such as the traditional lipid panel/cholesterol tests have kept us distracted from our real physical conditions. The medical system's war on cholesterol molecules has allowed people to ignore growing waist lines, their lack of physical activity, and the fact that we have an increasingly disabled population of young people due to vascular diseases. Indeed, these are the actual indicators of health.
Are our lives determined by blood concentration of cholesterol molecules? Well yes, but for more positive reasons than negative ones. Instead of fearing it, we should view cholesterol in general as a positive aspect of our lives and value it for the right reasons, as we would any other fantastically natural part of us.