Cholesterol is often heard as a bad word, but it’s actually essential to our health as human beings. Around 30% of our cell membranes are composed of cholesterol, and without it, we wouldn't be able to do much walking, running, jumping, climbing, or any of our other thousands of movements. There are different types of cholesterol, but not all are bad news.
Cholesterol Builds and Maintains Cell Membranes
A cell membrane, the cell's natural shield, is a selectively permeable barrier between the contents of a cell and the environment. It has a phospholipid layer with which cholesterol interacts, helping to increase membrane packing that allows the membrane to be fluid without compromising its strength. Cholesterol simultaneously lowers the permeability of cell membranes so that neutral solutes, hydrogen ions, and sodium ions cannot penetrate it.
It Helps Cells Do Their Jobs
While it offers natural protection, the importance of cholesterol is also seen in the way it aids in intracellular transport. The presence of cholesterol is essential to the relay of messages sent by electrical impulses. It helps form lipid rafts in the plasma membrane, which in turn brings proteins that receive messages closer to densely-packed second messenger molecules.
Cholesterol and phospholipids layer to help control how electrical impulses are transmitted along nerve tissue. They are both electrical insulators, and when they work together, they can regulate the pace at which electrical signals move through them. This function improves the efficiency with which your brain is able to send, receive, and interpret those signals.
It Helps Create Vitamins and Hormones
Precursor molecules are molecules that aid in the production of another compound, and cholesterol is one of those precursors. It aids in the production of vitamin D, which improves your body's ability to absorb calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate, and zinc. Steroid hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone all rely on cholesterol to complete synthesis.
It May Be an Antioxidant
Cholesterol has shown some efficacy as an antioxidant in select studies. If it's true, cholesterol may be one of many key compounds that inhibit the oxidation of molecules. Oxidation produces free radicals, which are capable of causing certain chain reactions that often damage healthy cells.
Antioxidants keep those dangerous chain reactions from happening. Cholesterol may be a natural antioxidant, which differs from a dietary antioxidant such as chocolate or wine. When added to a diet, foods that contain antioxidants have been unable to demonstrate a lower rate of cancer or mortality. However, since cholesterol is produced naturally by the body, it is likely fighting cell damage and cancer constantly.
It Affects Your Health
Health-conscious men and women have frequently heard of both good and bad cholesterol. Cholesterol has lipoproteins that can either be high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or low-density lipoproteins (LDL).
- HDL is called good cholesterol because it helps transport fat molecules out of artery walls, which helps prevent plaque from forming in the cardiovascular system and causing serious heart disease.
- LDL is called bad cholesterol because its function is to transport the content of lipid molecules into artery walls, which drives atherosclerosis, the hardening of arteries that leads to serious heart disease.
|Not all cholesterol is bad for you – but LDL is. Source: nih.gov|
Medicines such as Vytorin work to reduce cholesterol with low-density lipoproteins so that your body constantly works to free your arteries from plaque. However, dietary cholesterol should always be monitored in individuals who want to live long, healthy lives.
Cholesterol is an essential part of everyday life for humans, even if we don't see it or feel it. However, since our bodies produce almost enough of the good cholesterol we need to perform all necessary functions, educating ourselves and others on the importance of minimizing cholesterol intake is an investment in the future of health.