Cholesterol is a sterol (a combination steroid and alcohol), a lipid found in the cell membranes of all body tissues, and is transported in the blood plasma of all animals. The name originates from the Greek chole- (bile) and stereos (solid), and the chemical suffix -ol for an alcohol. Most of the cholesterol is synthesized by the body and some has dietary origin. Cholesterol is more abundant in tissues which either synthesize more or have more abundant densely-packed membranes, for example, the liver, spinal cord, brain, and atheromata (arterial plaques). Cholesterol plays a central role in many biochemical processes, but is best known for the association of cardiovascular disease with various lipoprotein cholesterol transport patterns and high levels of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is insoluble in blood, but is transported in the circulatory system bound to one of the varieties of lipoprotein, spherical particles which have an exterior composed mainly of water-soluble proteins.
Cholesterol rich foods are egg yolk, organ meats such as liver, kidney and brain, whole milk, cream, butter, cheese, ice-cream.
In recent years, the term “bad cholesterol” has been used to refer to cholesterol contained in LDL (low-density lipoprotein) which, according to the lipid hypothesis, is thought to have harmful actions, and “good cholesterol” to refer to cholesterol contained in HDL (high-density lipoprotein), thought to have beneficial actions. The American Heart Association provides a set of guidelines for total (fasting) blood cholesterol levels and risk for heart disease:
Level mg/dL Level mmol/L Interpretation
<200 <5.2 Desirable level corresponding to lower risk for heart disease
200-239 5.2-6.2 Borderline high risk
>240 >6.2 High risk
- LDL cholesterol is called “bad cholesterol”, because elevated levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. LDL lipoprotein deposits cholesterol on the artery walls, causing the formation of a hard, thick substance called cholesterol plaque. Over time, cholesterol plaque causes thickening of the artery walls and narrowing of the arteries, a process called atherosclerosis.
- HDL cholesterol is called the “good cholesterol” because HDL cholesterol particles prevent atherosclerosis by extracting cholesterol from the artery walls and disposing of them through the liver. Thus, high levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol (high LDL/HDL ratios) are risk factors for atherosclerosis, while low levels of LDL cholesterol and high level of HDL cholesterol (low LDL/HDL ratios) are desirable.
- Total cholesterol is the sum of LDL (low density) cholesterol, HDL (high density) cholesterol, VLDL (very low density) cholesterol, and IDL (intermediate density) cholesterol.
The level of LDL cholesterol in the blood: The liver not only manufactures and secretes LDL cholesterol into the blood; it also removes LDL cholesterol from the blood. A high number of active LDL receptors on the liver surfaces is associated with the rapid removal of LDL cholesterol from the blood and low blood LDL cholesterol levels. A deficiency of LDL receptors is associated with high LDL cholesterol blood levels.
Both heredity and diet have a significant influence on a person’s LDL, HDL and total cholesterol levels. For example, familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a common inherited disorder whose victims have a diminished number or nonexistent LDL receptors on the surface of liver cells. People with this disorder also tend to develop atherosclerosis and heart attacks during early adulthood.
Diets that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol raise the levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Fats are classified as saturated or unsaturated (according to their chemical structure). Saturated fats are derived primarily from meat and dairy products and can raise blood cholesterol levels. Some vegetable oils made from coconut, palm, and cocoa are also high in saturated fats.
Lowering LDL cholesterol is currently the primary focus in preventing atherosclerosis and heart attacks. Most doctors now believe that the benefits of lowering LDL cholesterol include:
- Reducing or stopping the formation of new cholesterol plaques on the artery walls;
- Reducing existing cholesterol plaques on the artery walls;
- Widening narrowed arteries;
- Preventing the rupture of cholesterol plaques, which initiates blood clot formation;
- Decreasing the risk of heart attacks; and
- Decreasing the risk of strokes. The same measures that retard atherosclerosis in coronary arteries also benefit the carotid and cerebral arteries (arteries that deliver blood to the brain).
HDL is the good cholesterol because it protects the arteries from the atherosclerosis process. HDL cholesterol extracts cholesterol particles from the artery walls and transports them to the liver to be disposed through the bile. It also interferes with the accumulation of LDL cholesterol particles in the artery walls. The risk of atherosclerosis and heart attacks in both men and is strongly related to HDL cholesterol levels. Low levels of HDL cholesterol are linked to a higher risk, whereas high HDL cholesterol levels are associated with a lower risk. Very low and very high HDL cholesterol levels can run in families. Families with low HDL cholesterol levels have a higher incidence of heart attacks than the general population, while families with high HDL cholesterol levels tend to live longer with a lower frequency of heart attacks.
Like LDL cholesterol, life style factors and other conditions influence HDL cholesterol levels. HDL cholesterol levels are lower in persons who smoke cigarettes, eat a lot of sweets, are overweight and inactive, and in patients with type II diabetes mellitus.
HDL cholesterol is higher in people who are lean, exercise regularly, and do not smoke cigarettes. Estrogen increases a person’s HDL cholesterol, which explains why women generally have higher HDL levels than men do.
For individuals with low HDL cholesterol levels, a high total or LDL cholesterol blood level further increases the incidence of atherosclerosis and heart attacks. Therefore, the combination of high levels of total and LDL cholesterol with low levels of HDL cholesterol is undesirable whereas the combination of low levels of total and LDL cholesterol and high levels of HDL cholesterol is favorable.
LDL/HDL and total/HDL ratios- The total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio (total chol/HDL) is a number that is helpful in estimating the risk of developing atherosclerosis. The number is obtained by dividing total cholesterol by HDL cholesterol. (High ratios indicate a higher risk of heart attacks, whereas low ratios indicate a lower risk). High total cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol increases the ratio and is undesirable. Conversely, high HDL cholesterol and low total cholesterol lowers the ratio and is desirable. An average ratio would be about 4.5. Ideally, one should strive for ratios of 2 or 3 (less than 4).
Levels of HDL cholesterol can be raised by:
- The first step in increasing HDL cholesterol levels (and decreasing LDL/HDL ratios) is therapeutic life style changes. When these modifications are insufficient, medications are used. In prescribing medications or medication combinations, doctors have to take into account medication side effects as well as the presence or absence of other abnormalities in cholesterol profiles.
- Regular aerobic exercise, loss of excess weight (fat), and cessation of smoking cigarettes will increase HDL cholesterol levels. Regular alcohol consumption (such as one drink a day) will also raise HDL cholesterol. Because of other adverse health consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, alcohol is not recommended as a standard treatment for low HDL cholesterol.