We are taught to be scared of cholesterol as it is advertised mostly as a fatty substance responsible for heart disease.
However, the significant role of cholesterol in health and life processes and as a precursor (i.e. a compound that participates in the chemical reaction that produces another compound) of steroid hormones, essential for the continuation of life, is not something we’re generally aware of. This article attempts to shed light upon some positive aspects of cholesterol along with the negative ones.
Cholesterol is, in fact neither a fat molecule nor a fat-like substance. It is classified as Sterol (a contraction of steroid and alcohol). The name cholesterol originated from the Greek word chol, meaning bile and steros meaning solid, and a suffix ‘ol’ for alcohol. Hence it is termed as solid alcohol. It is synthesised in the liver at the ratio of one gram per day and derived from high cholesterol diets of animal origin.
Out of one gram about 0.8 to 0.7 gram is consumed and utilised by the body for the performance of various crucial physiological functions and biochemical processes necessary to sustain life. Vitamin D and many hormones vital for health are derived from cholesterol. In addition to being a precursor of important hormones and vitamins, cholesterol is also required to build and maintain body tissues. It envelops and insulates nerves, which helps in conducting nerve impulses. It has also been implicated in cell signalling processes and also acts as an anti-oxidant. As a precursor of bile, which is stored in the gall bladder, it helps in the digestion of fat and fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K which are important for health. These aspects are only carried out when significant amount of cholesterol is available in the body, else life processes are hampered and other diseases may ensue.
Good and bad cholesterol Not all kinds of cholesterol are good for the body. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is what is usually termed ‘bad cholesterol’ as this is the kind that clogs up arteries leading to heart disease. Almost all meat, milk and milk products as well as ghee and food prepared in it contain enormous quantities of bad cholesterol.
Although egg yolk contains about 550 milligram of cholesterol, it is not harmful because its source is chicken, which does not consume meat, and its own meat does not contain alarming quantities of cholesterol. Eggs also provide Vitamin D, protein, various nutrients and hormones that are essential for health. The normal value of both good and bad cholesterol is 150 – 280mg/100ml of blood
The role of triglyceride (TG) This is a substance found in ghee and fatty foods. It is also as harmful as cholesterol. Ghee and fatty foods are very rich in both cholesterol and triglyceride and consumption of such food causes heart disease more rapidly than consumption of food containing cholesterol only. Normal level of TG is considered to be 70 - 150mg/100 ml of blood. Higher levels cause obesity, goitre and kidney diseases. Both cholesterol and TG can be lowered by eating fish, garlic, vitamin B3 (niacin) etc., and by consuming, vegetables, fruits, grains etc., because these substances contain phytosterol instead of cholesterol. Eating vegetables is recommended as they also clear bad cholesterol from the blood.
Signs and symptoms of high cholesterol Cholesterol may deposit in the form of lumps in any part of the body such as hands, elbows, knees, feet, etc. Yellowish patches around the eyelids are also common in familial hypercholesterolemia.