Cholesterol is something we’ve all heard about, but many of us don’t realise that we need this vital compound in order for our bodies to function properly. Cholesterol is so important, that the body makes it itself. Even if you ate a completely cholesterol-free diet, your body would make approximately 1,000 mg that it needs to function properly. Your body has the ability to regulate the amount of cholesterol in the blood, producing more when your diet doesn’t provide adequate amounts.

What Is Cholesterol?

It is a fat, or lipid. It is also a sterol, from which steroid hormones are made. If you held cholesterol in your hand, you would see a waxy substance that resembles the very fine scrapings of a whitish-yellow candle. Cholesterol flows through your body via your bloodstream, but this is not a simple process. Because lipids are oil-based and blood is water-based, they don’t mix. If cholesterol were simply dumped into your bloodstream, it would congeal into unusable globs. To get around this problem, the body packages cholesterol and other fats into minuscule protein-covered particles called lipoproteins (lipid + protein) that do mix easily with blood.

Cholesterol is required by the human body to perform 5 main functions:

It helps make the outer coating of cells.      

It forms part of the outer cell membrane – otherwise known as the phospholipid bilayer. This membrane is important for the regulation of the electrolyte and solute content of the cell and maintains homeostasis by allowing only certain substances into and out of the cell, also is vital to strengthen the membrane, protecting the cell and its contents.

It makes up the bile acids that work to digest food in the intestine.

Bile acids are essential to the digestion of fat; they act as emulsifiers, breaking down the fat into smaller particles so that it can be digested and absorbed by the body. Cholesterol forms an integral part of these bile acids.

It allows the body to make Vitamin D and hormones, like oestrogen in women and testosterone in men.

Life sustaining hormones like testosterone, oestrogen and cortisol all require cholesterol in their manufacture and is essential for the manufacture of vitamin D by the body. This vitamin is formed when cholesterol that lies just under the skin is exposed to UV rays from the sun. Vitamin D is important for  nervous system and brain function, immunity, and the maintenance of strong and healthy bones.

Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E & K are stored in fat. When these vitamins are required by the body, they are released from our fat stores into the bloodstream. Cholesterol is the substance that transports these important vitamins around the body via the blood.

Within the cell membrane, cholesterol  functions in intracellular transport and cell signalling.                                                              

Extracellular and intracellular signalling and communication is usually undertaken by proteins on the cell’s surface or within the cell itself.  Cholesterol has been found to interact with these proteins, to regulate their function inside the cell and on the cell membrane. It also helps to transport substances within cells.

Cholesterol forms the myelin sheath that surrounds neurons and is vitally important for brain function.                                                                                          

It is essential to brain function as it aids in neurotransmitter regulation and release. Cholesterol forms the insulating and protective material that covers some neurons (nerve cells). This protective sheath (myelin), is responsible for the smooth and uninterrupted conduction of electrical impulses throughout the white matter of the nervous system and brain.

How Is Cholesterol Manufactured By The Body?

Although most cells can manufacture their own cholesterol, the liver is the primary site of production. To manufacture it, the body uses carbon that is obtained from dietary sources –  proteins, carbohydrates and fats. From the liver, cholesterol is transported via lipoproteins (LDL’s in this case) to where it is needed in the body. This process is especially important to the areas of the body that utilize a lot of cholesterol—like the testes in men and the ovaries in women, where the sex hormones are created. As the human body ages, it becomes less efficient at producing hormones like oestrogen and testosterone, and repairing and maintaining itself. As such, it becomes even more important to have an adequate supply of cholesterol to assist in regulation and maintenance

Cholesterol manufacturing in the body is a tightly controlled process. Proteins within the cells monitor the cholesterol content of the cell and signal for more cholesterol to be produced once the level drops too low. If the  content then becomes too high, the proteins signal for cholesterol production to be reduced. Sometimes, the genes that code for the production of cholesterol can malfunction, causing excess cholesterol to build up in the body.

Cholesterol has often been painted as the bad guy, but really is absolutely critical to our well-being. As you can see, it has many important functions within our bodies that make it essential for us to have an adequate supply of cholesterol available. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can go a long way to help us all maintain a good working relationship with the cholesterol in our bodies.

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