What is “Good Cholesterol?”

In our culture, we tend to exercise reductive thinking about cholesterol, labeling it as unilaterally bad, but science shows that “good cholesterol” plays an important role in our bodies. In the article below, we’ll explore the roles that good or HDL cholesterol plays in human health, and provide a disambiguation between types of cholesterol the body produces.

False Valuation and Cholesterol

Even health care professionals tend to oversimplify the two types of lipoproteins and assign a value to each. When they talk about bad cholesterol, or low-density lipoproteins (LDL), it’s important to remember that no cholesterol bears an inherently bad quality. LDL also performs some functions related to cell membrane integrity. What is bad about LDL is that too much of it contributes to plaque in the arteries, a major factor in heart disease.

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High levels of LDL are often a sign of inflammation within the body, and are not always directly associated with diet. While it is true that the Standard American Diet (SAD) can contribute to inflammation due to insulin resistance and excessive saturated fat intake, the overly simplified concept that cholesterol in foods is directly transmuted into body cholesterol is inaccurate. Another important misunderstanding is the fact that HDL and LDL are not cholesterol, but its carriers, since cholesterol cannot dissolve in the bloodstream.

A Closer Look at HDL and the Roles of Cholesterol

High-density lipoproteins are characterized as good cholesterol, primarily because normal or elevated levels of HDL help reduce plaque build up in the arteries. HDL is believed to act as an inhibitor for LDL plaque in the circulatory system. It scavenges LDL and returns it to the liver, which then breaks down the cholesterol and the lipoproteins.

It’s important to remember that cholesterol itself is neither innately good or bad, but rather the impacts of the type of carrier lipoprotein to which it attaches. In fact, cholesterol fulfills a variety of functions in the human body. First, it’s a sterol, which is integral in the production of several sex hormones that each fulfill specific roles. Estrogen, cortisone, progesterone, and testosterone all require it as a chemical building block.

Cholesterol is also a crucial substance our bodies need to maintain the integrity of cell walls, from skin and bones, to smooth and rough muscle tissue. Without it, our bodies also cannot produce vitamin D in conjunction with exposure to sunlight. While dietary sources of this vitamin are partially beneficial, our bodies rely on what’s made in house to reinforce and strengthen our skeletal structures and our muscles.

Consequences of Oversimplification

In a culture that deifies the fad diet, there have been a number of programs that attempt to remedy LDL and triglyceride problems by cutting dietary fats and animal proteins out of individual eating plans. This backfired spectacularly in many instances, because the human body does require protein sources such as red meat, poultry or eggs and healthy fats from a variety of sources in order to produce HDL.

Physicians were often mystified by the sudden appearance of digestive issues, gallbladder malfunctions, and gall stones in patients they had advised to follow these dietary plans. Studies later revealed that cholesterol is a vital component in the production of bile, without which food digestion is impossible. If the human body does not produce sufficient gall or stomach acid, indigestion from rotting food in the gut and stones in the gallbladder are the direct results.

Today, physicians understand the roles of HDL and dietary intake of certain macronutrients in maintaining a healthy body. Not only is HDL important to the circulatory and cardio-respiratory functions, but every system depends in some way on a balance of HDL, LDL, and other lipoproteins. HDL enables good cholesterol to be introduced to the systems that require it, while keeping LDL and triglycerides in check.