Monday, November 15, 2010

Cholesterol isn't all bad...

We've actually known this for quite some time, cholesterol does a lot of important things in cells and in your body, it just gets a bad wrap because when a lot of it gets carried around by low density lipoproteins, it can clog your arteries.  But cholesterol does lots of good things too, it improves the integrity of the cell membranes in all of your cells, and in many of the organelles within those cells.  It is also the molecule from which all of the steroid hormones are made (including estrogens and testosterone).  Some recent studies have also shown how critical cholesterol is for the development of the brain (an organ that is very rich with cholesterol) and the normal functioning of neurons.  The first study mentioned here shows how oxysterol (a metabolite, or breakdown product of cholesterol) seems to be important for the production of midbrain dopaminergic neurons (the type of cells that are lost in Parkinson's disease). The other study shows how cholesterol is important to normal brain function and the ability of neurons to communicate across synapses.  Some other important things that cholesterol does for us?  Well it is necessary for making vitamin D, it can have antioxidant properties (thus helping to prevent cell damage and cell death), and it can help our digestion of fat and fat soluble vitamins as a critical component of bile acids.  Of course, this doesn't mean that you should go out and start eating bacon and eggs for every meal.  Chances are that you are already getting plenty of cholesterol from you diet, and eating too much cholesterol in your diet can still be bad for your cardiovascular health, but the cholesterol that is made by the cells in your brain gets put to good use (as does the cholesterol made in most of your cells), it's just when you have to transport the stuff in your blood that it becomes a problem.   Also, there have been some studies to suggest that decreasing cholesterol synthesis with statins can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, and there are other studies that suggest that high levels of cholesterol are correlated with a higher incidence of certain cancers, and there are even a couple new studies to suggest that even cholesterol that is being carried by high density lipoproteins (HDLs, or "good cholesterol") may be harmful if you have conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, or kidney dysfunction.  So, I guess the point is that cholesterol is a complicated molecule with lots of functions in the body, some good, some bad, and in the end we have to weigh what we know about the good and the bad to determine how we treat various diseases, though, given the effectiveness of lowering cholesterol on treating and preventing heart disease, and the prevalence of hear disease (it being the number one killer in the U.S.) I think we will still have to keep the general mindset that cholesterol is bad (at least that too much cholesterol is bad), but we don't want to completely eliminate it, because some cholesterol can be good (at least for your brain, and your cell membranes).

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