Cholesterol : The giver of heart attacks!

For the last decade or so, cholesterol has gathered quite a reputation for being responsible for life threatening diseases like heart attack, brain stroke and atherosclerosis. So how about we learn something more about the “hows” and “whys” behind it?

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of lipid just like fats. They have a slightly different chemical structure than fats. They are found in abundance in animal sources of dietary fat like egg yolks, sea food and even cheese. If at all an individual manages to completely stay away from all cholesterol containing foods, he still won’t face any deficiency of cholesterol. The human body is perfectly capable of producing cholesterol on its own if it is in short supply from the diet.

How does it cause heart attack then?

To know that, we first have to learn about its main transporters in the body. Cholesterol isn’t soluble in water and so it cannot be transported to all parts of the body by the blood like fatty acids or glucose are transported. It needs a vehicle of its own.

The first vehicle, called the Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL), carries the cholesterol to all parts of the body, even parts like heart and brain. All the cells in the body NEED cholesterol.

The second vehicle, called the High Density Lipoprotein (HDL), carries the cholesterol from the dying cells of different parts of the body back to the liver for excretion.

The cholesterol is thus transported all around the body in small packets; packets made of fats and proteins.

What about it then?

LDL is often labelled as the “bad” cholesterol. I shall come back to explaining that in a moment. Before that, I want to explain something more important. Between the two lipoproteins, LDL is more susceptible to getting oxidized. Not all LDL molecules are of the same size; some are larger than the others. The smaller LDL particles will always get oxidized first. This oxidized LDL then cause inflammation in the arteries. Remember how the blood from a bruise clots and stops the bleeding there? The platelets which help in that process, can stick to the inflamed areas in the arteries and create plaques inside the blood vessels. Over time this plaque can partially or completely block the blood flow within these arteries. And this leads to various heart diseases like atherosclerosis.

The cholesterol blood tests do not tell us the proportion between small and large LDL molecules. Nor do they tell us about the quantity of oxidated LDL. However, we can use the total LDL readings and try to bring that down over a period of time and maintain a better HDL to LDL ratio.

To balance the HDL and LDL ratio:

Regular exercise has shown to balance the HDL to LDL ratio to a healthy level.
Quit smoking, alcohol and all such hazardous habits. Smoking has shown to reduce the HDL content from the blood thus leading to a higher LDL content.
Replace all the hydrogenated oils like vegetable oil, margarine and all trans-fats with better sources of fats like ghee, butter, coconut oil or olive oil.
If you are an obese person or overweight, bring down your weight to a healthier
Eat more fiber. Fiber from the diet has been shown to reduce the LDL content from the blood.

Does that mean you can eat as many egg yolks as you want?

In most cases there is absolutely no problem in eating around 4 to 6 eggs per day. Even among people with health issues around 1 to 4 eggs per day has shown no difference in their health. However, there is a small population of hyper responders who will see a spike in cholesterol, LDL and HDL both, after consuming whole eggs. But this is rare and more often than not you will not fall under this category.

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