Benefits of Cholesterol: What Is It Good For?

Why Your Body Needs Some Cholesterol (Although Not from Food)

The liver uses cholesterol for several functions.
The liver uses cholesterol for several functions. SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Having high cholesterol levels could place you at risk for developing heart disease if left untreated. Although having too much cholesterol in your body is not healthy, you still need it to carry out certain essential functions in the body. So, you cannot go completely without it.

Yet few people know about its benefits, and even medical experts are still discovering the many roles that it plays in the body.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol - a waxy compound that some have likened to soft candle wax - is a kind of sterol. Sterols are a type of fat found in the tissues of both plants and animals, although only animals have varying amounts of cholesterol. Although your body manufactures much of the cholesterol it needs in the liver, you can also obtain it through your diet. Animal products - such as chicken, beef, eggs or dairy products - are examples of foods that contain cholesterol.

What's Cholesterol Doing in There?

Although cholesterol tends to get a bad rap, it also performs several important functions in the body:  

  • Perhaps the most important of these is its role in forming and maintaining cell membranes and structures. Cholesterol can insert between fat molecules making up the cell, making the membrane more fluid. Cells also need cholesterol to help them adjust to changes in temperature.
  • Cholesterol is essential for making a number of critical hormones, including the stress hormone, cortisol. Cholesterol is also used to make the sex hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen.
  • The liver also uses cholesterol to make bile, a fluid that plays a vital role in the processing and digestion of fats.
  • Cholesterol is used by nerve cells for insulation.
  • Your body also needs cholesterol to make vitamin D. In the presence of sunlight, cholesterol is converted into vitamin D.

The Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol

If cholesterol is so necessary, why is it sometimes described as "bad," and at other times as "good?" It turns out that not all types of cholesterol are created equally - and perform different functions in the body.

Your liver packages cholesterol into so-called lipoproteins, which are combinations of lipids (fats) and proteins. Lipoproteins operate like commuter buses that carry cholesterol, other lipids like triglycerides, fat-soluble vitamins and other substances through the bloodstream to the cells that need them.

LDL, sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol” gets its bad reputation from the fact that high levels of it are associated with increasing your risk of heart disease. Shortened for low density lipoproteins, LDL contains more cholesterol than protein, making it lighter in weight. LDL travels through the bloodstream and carries cholesterol to cells that need it. When it becomes oxidized, LDL can promote inflammation and cause lipids to accumulate on the walls of vessels in the heart and rest of the body, forming plaques. These plaques can thicken and may limit - or completely block - blood and nutrients to affected tissues or organs.

HDL - or high density lipoproteins - is also commonly referred to as "good cholesterol".

HDL is heavier than LDL because it contains more protein and less cholesterol. HDL gets its good reputation from the fact that it takes cholesterol from the cells and brings it to the liver. Having higher levels of HDL may also help lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Sources:

Dipiro JT, Talbert RL. Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiological Approach, 9th ed 2014.

Whitney EN and SR Rolfes. Understanding Nutrition, 14ed. Wadsworth Publishing 2015.

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