What are the differences between good and bad cholesterol. LDL is known as the bad and HDL is known as the good – but why?
Cholesterol has been one of the long standing enemies of the western world for the last forty years…until very recently.
The United States has officially revoked it’s ‘most-dangerous’ status on cholesterol – as several other countries already have – there’s still quite a bit of confusing, contradictory information about the organic molecule that could do with clarifying.
A lot of people didn’t quite understand the connections between cholesterol, saturated fat, trans-fat and heart disease before this dramatic turnaround.
And, now that the situation has changed again, it’s enough to make for a really confusing time when doing the weekly grocery shopping.
Table of Contents
What Is Cholesterol?
It is an organic molecule, a lipid, more accurately, called a sterol, which is vital for the healthy function of humans and animals down to a cellular level.
We synthesize cholesterol in our organs; principally the liver, adrenal glands, intestines and reproductive organs.
This is key to understanding the importance of cholesterol, and also that dietary sources ideally should be harmonious with endogenous production.
Cholesterol is essential for cell membrane structural integrity and fluidity and also allows cells to survive without a cell wall, which in-turn gives them the freedom to move around and change shape.
Cholesterol is necessary for the production of steroid hormones, bile acid and Vitamin D.
Dietary Sources of Cholesterol
Sources of cholesterol include eggs (the yolk), cheese, pork, beef, chicken, fish and seafood (e.g. shrimp).
Some plant products (e.g. peanuts and other seeds) contain phytosterols which are cholesterol-like in nature.
They can compete with cholesterol for intestinal absorption and are sometimes supplemented by people to lower their levels of LDL (see section “Good and “Bad” Cholesterol).
Good and Bad Cholesterol
Most people have heard of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. Actually what these designation refer to are the lipoproteins which carry cholesterol, amongst other molecules – around the body.
The two most important lipoproteins where cholesterol is concerned are low-density-lipoprotein and high-densityilipoprotein; shortened to LDL and HDL respectively.
Therefore, the “bad cholesterol” label has been given to LDL, which is in fact a lipoprotein. And there in lies the rub: LDL is the major transport molecule for cholesterol in our blood.
What Makes LDL Cholesterol Bad?
So why have we vilified LDL for so long?
Here’s the simple version: When cells fill up with cholesterol, they stop synthesizing LDL receptor sites so they cannot take up any new cholesterol from them.
The problems begin when this process becomes unregulated and LDL molecules with no receptors start showing up in the blood.
It is these LDL molecules which are oxidized and absorbed by macrophages or which deposit their fat contents in blood vessels.
Macrophages swell as they fill up and form foam cells that end up as part of the plaque, leading to arterial blockage and ultimately heart disease – artherosclerosis.
HDL – the good guy – on the other hand, can transport cholesterol back to the liver to be wasted or recycled for other uses.
This lipoprotein is considered “good cholesterol” because of this, and not because it is in some way a different type of cholesterol.
Balance of LDL and HDL
It has been determined that high levels of HDL and low levels of LDL appear to be concomitant with good heart health.
The organs in the body strive to keep the balance of cholesterol the same in the body. In fact, about a quarter of our cholesterol is produced in the liver, most of the remainder coming from the intestines, adrenal glands, reproductive organs and diet.
When a cholesterol-rich diet is consumed, the body will dial back its endogenous production, and vice-versa when too little cholesterol is consumed.
The simplest and most common medical test of cholesterol levels in the context of health yields a ratio of Total Cholesterol to HDL levels. It is widely recommended that a ratio a lot less than 5:1 (Total:HDL) is healthier.
Fat and Cholesterol
Recent research indicates that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in the diet seems to lower LDL and raise HDL when replacing carbohydrates calorie for calorie (isocalorically).
Conversely, replacing carbs with trans-fats have the opposite – and therefore most negative – effect.
Saturated fats, however, raise LDL, HDL and Total Cholesterol. Saturated fats are therefore making somewhat of a comeback as well, considering its previous demonic reputation amongst health authorities.
Though there are experts firmly residing on both sides of the fence, some are confident that saturated fats will soon receive the same level of vindication as cholesterol is about to.
Conclusion: Reduce LDL Levels
Most authorities are now in agreement that consuming cholesterol in our diets is no longer a health concern.
It is, after all, essential for our health. It would appear that even if we cut cholesterol from the diet, the body will make up the difference and synthesize the stuff anyway. So, what can we do?
Rather, it is the balance of LDL and HDL which has more potential impact on a person’s health. That can be largely due to genetics and not an effect of diet at all.
As for dietary cholesterol, it would seem a consensus has not been fully reached. Some studies reveal that it’s beneficial to eat unsaturated fats.
Apparently this may both reduce “bad” LDL and increase “good” HDL. Some experts are saying you should eat saturated fats.
Even a meta-study involving 500,000 people has not fully determined the best course to take with our diets.
From our own research, we have come to the conclusion that there are four takeaway points that seem to be solid enough to form as a basis going forward:
- Do not avoid cholesterol in diet
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid trans-fats as much as possible
- Lower LDL levels where possible
By keeping fit and avoiding trans-fats, much of the good work is already done. Exercise reduces body fat which can store agents that increase circulating LDL levels.
Actively lowering LDL may be facilitated by using a supplement if you are considered high-risk or have been warned that your count is high.
The final and possibly most important message is that everyone should strive for a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
A good diet will in the very least rule it out as being a possible culprit for causing disease in the future.
In addition – exercising, taking a supplement and keeping an eye on your general health with regular checkups from the doctor will ensure you are doing everything you possibly can do.
You might have read our article about dietary cholesterol, and how the US government is about to remove from the long list of health warnings.
If so, then you will know a little bit more than the average person about what cholesterol is and that it is in fact a very important molecule in our bodies.
Without cholesterol we would die – it is responsible for several functions of cellular membranes and other core processes.
Those who have been avoiding it for the last 30 years in their diets are lucky then, that we synthesize it within our bodies anyway.
So why still do we need to lower cholesterol? And how come people to this day talk about good and bad cholesterol?
The answer to both of those questions is that the culprit is not actually cholesterol at all, but a transporter of cholesterol called Low Density Lipoprotein, or LDL for short. Along the way, this lipoprotein got tagged with the label “Bad Cholesterol” and from there on, the nickname stuck.
What’s LDL’s Problem?
The issue arises when there are too many LDL molecules roaming around in our blood, full of cholesterol that our other cells cannot use because they have enough of it.
These get oxidized – or wasted – and when they do, they can release their fatty material into the arteries that they travel along.
Also, other agents like macrophages come along and gorge on this material and get big and bloated, thereby causing the arterial blockages that can lead eventually to heart disease.
There’s Also Good Cholesterol – HDL
Again, not strictly cholesterol, but we’re very fortunate to have another cholesterol carrier called High Density Lipoprotein, or HDL.
This lipoprotein finds that loose cholesterol and fat deposit in the arteries, scoops it up, and takes it all away to the liver for excretion or to other organs that need it.
Ratio is Key
There are many people that have one of two problems: too much LDL, or too little HDL.
HDL is really the hero we want to endure so lowering the levels of LDL is always the prime objective.
Not matter what, the ratio of Total Cholesterol to HDL should be a lot less than 5:1. When HDL is only 1 part in 5, we have a problem.
Now, remember that this is really a measure of the amount of one type of lipoprotein compared to another.
The actual cholesterol isn’t really the issue – and that is why dietary cholesterol is now being cleared as safe by the US and has been for a while elsewhere.
The main reason is that our bodies will produce cholesterol to make up the difference we don’t take on in our diets anyway.
And if we have a cholesterol rich diet, our body will back off the endogenous production.
Balanced Diet, Exercise and Supplements
Of course, there are things you can do to ensure you are giving yourself the best chance at avoiding the risk of heart disease.
Regular check-ups at the doctor are a good way to monitor your improvement.
A well-rounded diet, comprising all the major food groups, macro-nutrients (proteins, carbs, fats), vitamins, minerals is key to your longevity.
Regular exercise will help keep the fat levels down, which is one of the major contributors to heart disease.
Finally, a supplement can be the secret weapon that high LDL levels never saw coming.
The LDL Lowering Ingredients
If you are thinking of using a supplement and you want to take the natural route make sure it is not a statin drug, which is the first thing a doctor will prescribe someone with high LDL levels.
There have been substantially negative reports about the effects of statin drugs in recent years and thankfully there is now another option.
We are not going to recommend a specific brand but ensure the one you choose has a blend of natural ingredients that are rapidly becoming recognized for their safe and effective reduction of LDL levels and maintenance of healthy cholesterol levels
For example a good product would include the following.
Red Yeast Rice and Policosanol
- Red Yeast Rice has monacolin K which can act like a statin but doesn’t have the side effects. It helps normalise blood cholesterol levels.
- Policosanol can lower LDL and raise HDL
Grape Seed Extract
GSE is excellent for optimal blood circulation and is packed with antioxidants to combat the oxidation of LDL and plaque buildup in the arteries.
Another elite antioxidant, Q10 protects the heart and cells from harmful free radicals.