Cholesterol is often viewed negatively for health, yet is an essential and vital constituent to your body. Deposits of cholesterol within blood vessels are undesirable, but your body makes substantial amounts of cholesterol every day because it has a job to do. Rather than viewing cholesterol as a villain to health, take measures to protect it and support your body.
About 3000 mg of cholesterol per day is made by your body, which is ten times the amount of the recommended dietary amount of 300 mg per day. The liver and digestive tract make the most cholesterol, while all other tissues contribute about 4 mg of cholesterol per pound of body weight. Normally, if you consume high amounts of dietary cholesterol, the liver will reduce production of cholesterol. This may not always be the case in some individuals with hereditary or genetic changes.
Dietary intake of cholesterol comes from animal foods. Plant-based foods do not contain cholesterol.
Essential for Bile Acids, Lipid Particles, Steroid Hormones and Vitamins
Your body works hard to make cholesterol and metabolize it for several compounds and tissue repair. It contributes to bile acids that are used for digestion and absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, detoxification of medications, and breakdown of dietary fats. Cholesterol is metabolized into lipoproteins such as HDL, LDL, VLDL, and others that affect movement of cholesterol for repair or metabolism throughout the circulatory system.
Cholesterol provides the structural backbone for several steroid hormones such as progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone as well as other adrenal hormones like cortisol and aldosterone. These hormones provide more than just outward sexual characteristics. They affect growth and development, brain function, bone strength, immune function, mitochondria and energy production, thyroid regulation and body temperature, blood pressure and cardiovascular health, blood sugar and metabolism rates, etc.
Cholesterol acts as a carrier for vitamin E and vitamin K that helps their absorption and utilization. In addition, cholesterol plays an important role in vitamin D production. When your skin is exposed to sunlight and UVB rays, cholesterol molecules are converted into vitamin D3. This form of vitamin D3 is carried to the liver and then to your kidneys to become activated. Adequate levels of the antioxidant glutathione are also vital for this process and vitamin D activation.
Essential for Cell Membrane Structure and Permeability
Cholesterol lies embedded in cell membranes, which is essential for their structure and permeability. About 25-30 percent of lipids in cell membranes come from cholesterol. Its presence affects the shape, size, thickness, fluidity, and permeability of cell membranes. It makes the cell membranes more restrictive rather than allowing free movement of all things in and out, but is malleable enough to allow movement of ions and gases. Cholesterol has been described as the mortar that holds bricks together.
Cholesterol and Brain
Your brain is a fatty organ and contains about 25 percent of the total cholesterol in your body. Cell membranes, nerve insulation, receptor sites, and other materials require cholesterol for growth, development, repair, and function throughout your lifespan.
The myelin sheath is a sophisticated layer of insulation made up largely of cholesterol that surrounds nerves throughout your body and brain. The myelin sheath protects nerves and significantly increases the speed of nerve signals. Cell membranes and the myelin sheath are in a constant state of remodeling and repair. This process depends upon adequate amounts of healthy cholesterol. It is necessary for function and maintenance.
Your brain uses cholesterol and other special fats to interact with neurotransmitters. Nerve cell membranes require cholesterol for receptor site function and movement of neurotransmitters, especially acetylcholine (the memory and parasympathetic autonomic nervous system) and serotonin. (Note that cholesterol lowering statin medications can adversely affect memory and mood.) Healthy cholesterol with adequate antioxidants and balanced cortisol levels are essential for mood and cognitive function.
Critical for Growth and Development
During pregnancy, the preborn child uses cholesterol from the adrenal glands for development and growth. About 50 percent of the needed cholesterol comes from LDL metabolism.
Essential for Immune Activities
There is an emerging body of research that has discovered complex interactions of the immune system with cholesterol. Cholesterol provides several highly complex immune modulatory actions as it affects innate and adaptive immune system function. Numerous immune receptor sites, cytokines and other signaling compounds are dynamically regulated by cholesterol.
Cholesterol and its metabolites are involved with activation, priming, and/or mobilization in immune cells like monocytes, neutrophils, and stem cells. It also enhances T-cell production. However, during states of metabolic stress and inflammation from high fat/high sugar/nutrient poor diets, elevated blood pressure, obesity, cellular injury, and oxidative stress, etc, the immune-cholesterol mechanisms ramp up their activity for protection against these challenges. This is not helpful and leads to cholesterol being laid down on the inner lining of blood vessels.
Damaged cholesterol from oxidative stress, high sugar, toxins, and other factors contributes to changes in lipid levels (HDL, LDL) and particles size. Learn more about this at Health Clues and Tips for Your Heart and Weight: Part II and Saturated Fat Myth – Debunked Again
A build-up of cholesterol in the wrong places or damaged, dysfunctional cholesterol is unwanted. Some individuals have significant genetic challenges that affect cholesterol levels. For many others, diet, stress, and unhealthy lifestyle habits more commonly contribute cholesterol challenges.
Primary goals with cholesterol management are like those of many other things – to keep a good balance and protect its healthy function. Avoidance of deep-fried foods, trans-fats, and processed, packaged foods is an essential first step. Avoid tobacco use and consume alcohol in moderation or limited amounts. Physical activity, stress management, and maintenance of healthy blood sugars are just as important. The typical high-calorie nutrient-poor Western diet is void of essential nutrients that are an integral support of cholesterol fitness.
Several nutrients aid in healthy cholesterol metabolism and provide antioxidant support against oxidative stress to HDL and LDL cholesterol particles. These include magnesium, tocotrienols (vitamin E), pantethine, resveratrol, omega-3 EPA/DHA essential fatty acids, pomegranate extract, niacin, green tea extract, curcumin, glutathione, garlic, vitamin C, lipoic acid, and many others.
Fiber, probiotics, resveratrol, and other nutrients help cholesterol and bile acid metabolism in the liver and gut. Glutathione, N-acetyl-cysteine, resveratrol, curcumin, and numerous other nutrients also provide antioxidant support for cholesterol-immune management.
Here are some recent studies on a few nutrients. Clinical trials demonstrated the essential benefit of magnesium on cholesterol management and with insulin and blood sugar interactions. In addition, a randomized clinical trial published in the April 2019 British Journal of Nutrition found that 250 mg of magnesium intake for 24 weeks provided significant support for heart and blood vessel health and cholesterol and insulin metabolism.
Tocotrienols are special forms of vitamin E. Their unique shape makes them provide potent antioxidant activity much more than the tocopherol form of vitamin E. Delta-tocotrienols followed by gamma- and alpha-tocotrienols provides the most potent antioxidant actions.
Tocotrienols are highly protective to the inside of blood vessels and also aid and protect HDL cholesterol metabolism. Tocotrienols also “communicate” with the HMG CoA reductase enzyme that is involved with cholesterol production.
Pantethine, the activated form of vitamin B5 provides metabolic support for cholesterol metabolism. It helps the production of acetyl CoA, which directly manages cholesterol production inside of cells and liver. It also helps support against free radical damage on cholesterol lipids.
A randomized, triple-blinded, placebo-controlled study in adults evaluated pantethine’s effect on lipid metabolism. Results showed pantethine provided beneficial aid in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol metabolism.
Cholesterol remains a vital compound for healthy structure and function. Without cholesterol, your cell membranes, nerves, and many functions are compromised as briefly described above. Antioxidant support and healthy cholesterol management is essential for daily health and cholesterol fitness. Here are some additional resources to help you learn more about cholesterol.