Understanding Cholesterol

By Glenn Ellis

Statins are one of the bestselling pharmaceuticals of all time.

If you’re not on medicine to lower your cholesterol yet, you might be soon. Recent new guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology for prescribing cholesterol-lowering drugs have raised many eyebrows. Based on these guidelines, the number of people in this country who are on statins would double from the almost 1 out of every 4 Americans over the age of 55 currently taking a statin drug!

This is due to the new criteria for prescribing for your doctor. In the past, we all followed our “cholesterol levels” to not be prescribed medication. Now, it’s all about four questions your doctor will ask.

Among the four questions to ask to determine risks: Do you have heart disease? Do you have diabetes (Type 1 or 2)? Do you have a bad cholesterol level more than 190? And is your 10-year risk of a heart attack greater than 7.5 percent?

Answering yes to any one of these questions means you should be taking a statin drug.

Shortly after this announcement, a growing number of doctors and medical experts say the guidelines have gone too far. So, the debate will undoubtedly continue.

No matter what comes out of the discussion, cholesterol is a health topic that we all should understand. Let’s look at what cholesterol does and it benefits, as well as how it can be a risk to our health.

Every cell membrane in our body contains cholesterol because cholesterol is what makes our cells waterproof. When cholesterol levels are not adequate, the cell membrane becomes leaky or porous; a situation the body interprets as an emergency, releasing a flood of corticoid hormones that work by seizing cholesterol from one part of the body and transporting it to areas where it is lacking. Cholesterol is the body’s repair substance: scar tissue contains high levels of cholesterol, including scar tissue in the arteries.

Cholesterol is a waxy fat that is present in all human beings. Two sources contribute to the amount of cholesterol in the human body. First, the liver manufactures about 80 percent of it. Second, people consume it by eating animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy products. Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by certain proteins.

When these proteins wrap around cholesterol and other types of fats (lipids) to transport them through the bloodstream, the resulting “packages” are called lipoproteins. There are four different types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol through the bloodstream: High-density lipoproteins (HDL), which are associated with “good” cholesterol; low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which are associated with “bad” cholesterol; very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), which are associated with “very bad” cholesterol; chylomicrons, which only carry a small percentage of cholesterol. Chylomicrons are mostly rich in another type of fat (lipid) called triglycerides.

Cholesterol is the precursor to vitamin D, necessary for numerous biochemical processes in the body, including mineral metabolism. The bile salts, required for the digestion of fat, are made of cholesterol. Those who suffer from low cholesterol often have trouble digesting fats. Cholesterol also functions as a powerful antioxidant, thus protecting us against cancer and aging.

Cholesterol is vital to proper neurological function. It plays a key role in the formation of memory and the uptake of hormones in the brain, including serotonin, the body’s “feel-good” chemical. When cholesterol levels drop too low, these serotonin receptors cannot work. Cholesterol is the main organic molecule in the brain, constituting over half the dry weight of the cerebral cortex.

Cholesterol is the forerunner to all the hormones produced in the adrenal cortex of the brain, which regulate blood sugar levels, and mineral corticoids, which regulate mineral balance. Corticoids are the cholesterol-based adrenal hormones that the body uses in response to stress of various types; it promotes healing and balances the tendency towards inflammation. The adrenal cortex also produces sex hormones, including testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, out of cholesterol.

The drugs that doctors use to treat the new disease are called statins–sold under a variety of names including: Lipitor; Zocor; Mevacor; and Pravachol. Cholesterol-fighting drugs, which are taken by millions, are ranked as the most widely prescribed and most profitable drugs in the world.

This overall risk is determined by a combination of factors, including age, gender, family history of heart disease, and whether someone smokes, is overweight, has high blood pressure or diabetes.

The higher the risk of heart disease (for example, a male smoker with high blood pressure and diabetes), the greater the need to get cholesterol levels down.

But, as stated earlier in this column, what constitutes a healthy cholesterol level is controversial, even among doctors.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com