In contrast to common belief, cholesterol is not always a “culprit”. It is a vital substance which the human body depends on for normal functioning. As long as our cholesterol is not oxidized and levels stay within a normal, healthy range, there is no problem.
Cholesterol travels through the blood in small “packages” incorporated in large molecules known as lipoproteins and are combinations of protein and fat. There are four main groups of lipoproteins:
Each group has specific functions in the body.
HDL – also known as “good cholesterol” – gathers excess cholesterol in the bloodstream and brings it back to the liver where it is re-processed. Raised HDL levels are associated with cardiovascular protection.
LDL – or “bad cholesterol” – conveys cholesterol from the liver and deposits in different places, including the lining of the arteries. This causes the formation of cholesterol plaque and, over time, thickening of the artery walls and narrowing of the arteries (this process is called atherosclerosis).
VLDL – conveys endogenous triglycerides, phospholipids, cholesterol, and cholesteryl esters. It functions as the body's internal transport mechanism for lipids. A high VLDL level is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease.
Chylomicrons – large lipoprotein particles that consist of triglycerides, phospholipids, cholesterol and proteins. They transport dietary lipids from the intestines to the liver and to fat tissue. A fatty meal will fill the blood with chylomicrons.
Illustration below: A healthy artery is wide open because there is no arterial plaque that clogs it up. When blood fats like cholesterol and triglycerides get oxidised, they turn into sticky plaque that narrows the passage through the artery.
The right balance
What is important is the ratio – or balance - between HDL and LDL. The more LDL and the less HDL you have, the worse off you are. On the other hand, relatively high HDL and low LDL is considered healthy. Factors that contribute to healthy HDL levels include exercise, a modest alcohol intake, and certain foods such as fish (because of their omega-3 content).