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What I Didn’t Know About Cholesterol

Updated: Feb 16


Today was the first time in two years that I sat down in the morning to write a blog post but couldn't write it. I didn't suffer from writer's block, but I did fall down a rabbit hole.


I wanted to write today about Vascular Dementia and explain how, like heart disease, it can often be prevented by lifestyle changes, but I first wanted to understand better what cholesterol is and how it can clog our arteries.


As I started learning the terminology and processes, I realized how little I really knew! We are all familiar with the terms HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol), but I never thought to learn what these terms actually mean. So, I began reading, and each article and video led me to search for more and more information.


The day passed, and I didn't write my blog, but I did gain a better understanding of cholesterol and plaque and learned a few surprising facts.


Instead of my intended blog post, I'm sharing what I learned today about cholesterol and plaque build-up to help others understand what cholesterol is all about, hopefully in a way that you won’t have to spend hours trying to understand.




What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is naturally produced by the liver and can also be found in certain foods. It plays an important role in various bodily functions, including:


✔️Production of hormones.

✔️Proper function and communication of cells with each other.

✔️Synthesis of vitamin D in our skin.

✔️Production of bile.


Think of cholesterol as a type of fat that our bodies need in small amounts for important functions. It acts as a building block for some of our body's processes.


However, an excessive amount of cholesterol can contribute to the development of plaque in our arteries.



The Cholesterol Balancing Act

Our liver plays an important role in maintaining a balance of cholesterol in our bodies.


The liver produces cholesterol on its own. It creates the right amount of cholesterol needed for important functions in our bodies. However, cholesterol can also come from the food we eat, especially from animal-based products.


When cholesterol levels are low, the liver produces more cholesterol to meet the body's needs. When cholesterol levels are high, the liver reduces its production and increases the uptake of cholesterol from the bloodstream.


Once cholesterol has served its purpose or becomes excess, the liver helps eliminate it from the body. Some cholesterol is excreted through bile into the intestines, and it eventually leaves the body through bowel movements.




What Are Actually LDL and HDL?

Cholesterol is transported in our bloodstream by special carriers called lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins involved in cholesterol transport:


LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein): LDL cholesterol, often referred to as "bad" cholesterol, carries cholesterol from the liver to other parts of the body where it is needed. However, if LDL cholesterol levels become too high, it can lead to the build-up of plaque in the arteries, potentially increasing the risk of heart disease.


HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein): HDL cholesterol, often referred to as "good" cholesterol, helps remove excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and transports it back to the liver for processing and elimination. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are generally associated with a lower risk of heart disease.




When Cholesterol Balance Fails

While the liver plays an important role in regulating cholesterol levels, several factors can contribute to an imbalance resulting in elevated cholesterol levels and plaque build-up in many individuals. Here are some of the reasons:


✔️A diet high in saturated fats and trans fats can increase cholesterol levels. When we consume excessive amounts of these unhealthy fats, the liver may have difficulty maintaining the optimal balance.


✔️Lack of physical activity can negatively impact cholesterol levels. Regular exercise helps raise HDL (good) cholesterol, which aids in the removal of LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream.


✔️Excess body weight, particularly abdominal obesity, can contribute to higher cholesterol levels and an increased risk of plaque formation.


✔️Age: Cholesterol levels tend to increase with age, partly due to changes in hormone levels.


✔️Smoking is known to reduce levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.


✔️Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and liver disease, can affect cholesterol metabolism and lead to elevated cholesterol levels.


✔️Some individuals may have genetic variations that lead to an impaired ability to efficiently remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream.




What Is Plaque Build-up?

If the liver cannot balance cholesterol properly, excess cholesterol can contribute to the formation of plaque. This plaque build-up can eventually lead to problems such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, or vascular dementia.


Plaque is a sticky mixture that can form inside our arteries. It consists of various substances, including cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other materials.


Plaque begins to develop when cholesterol and other substances adhere to the walls of our arteries. It's like a sticky accumulation that gradually grows over time. As plaque builds up, it narrows the space inside the arteries, making it more difficult for blood to flow through. This condition is known as atherosclerosis.


Think of arteries as pipes in your house that carry water. When atherosclerosis occurs, it's similar to having gunk or build-up inside those pipes.




Keep Your Children's Arteries Clean

I always thought that if someone has high cholesterol and they lower it to safe levels, they will be fine. I never realized, or perhaps forgot, that we all have plaque in our arteries that began accumulating when we were young adults and even in our teens, the age depending on our diet and lifestyle at that time in our lives.


As we age, what we are actually trying to do is prevent plaque build-up, which can gradually narrow our arteries, causing reduced blood flow and increasing the risk of heart disease and vascular dementia later in life.


In other words, the plaque is not going to fully disappear when we reduce our cholesterol levels. We can only strive to prevent it from accumulating and blocking our arteries.


As parents, we may be increasing our children's chances of developing heart disease or vascular dementia in the future with the food we feed them today! Please think twice about the diet you are serving your family today to help prevent atherosclerosis in your children when they become adults.



Coffee and Cholesterol

This was a big surprise for me. I always thought that if a food had zero cholesterol, it would not raise cholesterol levels. Today I learned that even though a specific food has zero cholesterol, it may have other components that can raise cholesterol levels. Coffee is an example!


Coffee contains various substances, and two of them are cafestol and kahweol. These compounds are found in the oily part of coffee beans and have been shown to impact cholesterol levels.


Cafestol and kahweol can interfere with the normal processing of cholesterol in the liver. They can increase the production of LDL ("bad cholesterol") and decrease the production of HDL ("good cholesterol"). This imbalance can lead to higher levels of LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream.


Research shows that brewing coffee using a paper filter removes most of the cafestol and kahweol, resulting in a lower impact on cholesterol. Therefore, filtered coffee, such as that made with a drip coffee maker, is generally considered to have a lesser effect on cholesterol compared to unfiltered coffee.



In summary:

✔️ Cholesterol is important for bodily functions.

✔️ Our liver plays a role in balancing our cholesterol levels.

✔️ HDL moves cholesterol to the liver, while LDL moves it away from the liver.

✔️ Factors such as consuming saturated fats, lack of exercise, excess weight, and smoking can increase cholesterol levels.

✔️ Excessive cholesterol can lead to plaque build-up.

✔️ Plaque formation can begin at a young age.

✔️ Zero cholesterol in a food doesn't guarantee it won't contribute to high cholesterol levels.


So, even though I thought I didn't write my blog post today, it seems I just did, albeit on a different subject. 😁


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