What Is Cholesterol, and Should I Be Concerned About It?

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Filed Under: Heart Health, Cholesterol
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

What Is Cholesterol, and Should I Be Concerned About It?

Learn what cholesterol does in the body and why you need to control it

Nowadays everyone seems to be declaring war on cholesterol—despite the fact that no one has proven cholesterol to be a genuine enemy.

Before you jump on the bandwagon, too, it’s important to understand exactly what cholesterol is, what it does in the body, and how it is and isn’t related to heart disease. You may be surprised.

We Can’t Live Without Cholesterol

The first paragraphs of most articles about cholesterol usually leave you picturing chunks of yellow fat pumping through your bloodstream. But actually, cholesterol is more like a wax than a fat or oil. Your body produces between 1,500 and 1,800 mg of it every day, mostly in the liver, but also in the small intestine and in individual cells.

In the body, cholesterol is used to—

  • Manufacture bile salts. About 80 percent of cholesterol is used by the liver to help produce bile salts. Bile salts are stored in the gallbladder and used to help in the digestion and absorption of fat in the diet.
  • Produce hormones. Provides the basis of several important steroid hormones produced in the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes
  • Maintain the integrity of cell membranes. Every cell uses cholesterol to construct its protective membrane and maintain its shape. Cholesterol also helps form a special barrier against various substances, making cells resistant to the penetration of certain liquids and keeping water from leaving your body too quickly. Without cholesterol, it is estimated that you would lose four to five gallons of water per day through evaporation, instead of the usual 10 to 14 ounces.
  • Produce vitamin D. Cholesterol is an essential ingredient for making vitamin D.

By itself, cholesterol is only a problem in the body when it becomes oxidized. When cholesterol becomes oxidized, it can damage artery linings and set the stage for mineral and fat deposits that lead to blockages.

Reducing Cholesterol Does Reduce Risk

Given all of the essential functions that cholesterol is needed for, you might expect me to say that I don’t believe in lowering cholesterol levels. To the contrary—I’m all for lowering cholesterol levels. I just don’t believe in lowering cholesterol on the premise that cholesterol causes heart disease.

I believe in lowering cholesterol because the diet and lifestyle habits that cause high cholesterol levels are directly linked to heart disease. By reducing your cholesterol level, you’ll be attacking bigger and more fundamental health issues.

If your total cholesterol level is in the 300s or higher, you should certainly address it. The more total cholesterol you have, the more there is to become oxidized and collect in your arteries. Levels at or around 200 or so shouldn’t cause you concern, though. A healthy diet and adequate physical activity will keep your blood lipid levels in check.

More Dr. Williams Advice on Cholesterol

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