We often hear warnings about eating foods that contain cholesterol. We are told eating these foods will lead to cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. From this we often form the conclusion that cholesterol is bad. In fact, we are told there is “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol. Yet, the simple truth is that cholesterol is an essential component of human biochemistry – our body requires it and uses it continuously.

Cholesterol is used to manufacture cell membranes. Cell membranes determine what gets in and out of our cells. Without cholesterol cell membranes will not function correctly. When this occurs we have damaged cells. With damaged cells comes a variety of diseases, particularly cancer.

The greatest concentration of cholesterol is in the brain and nervous system. The nerve cells have cholesterol rich membranes. This allows the electrical currents of the nervous system to signal and travel effectively. Our brain and nervous system will not work properly without sufficient cholesterol.

Cholesterol is the base material for hormones – among these are our sex hormones and our stress handling hormones. These include: pregnenolone, DHEA, progesterone, testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol. Their roles include: stress handling; reproduction; energy production; maintaining stable blood sugar levels; body repair and regeneration; healthy brain function, mood, cognition, and memory; and maintaining overall strength, stamina, and vitality.

Because our body requires cholesterol, it has a system in place to manufacture it. This occurs in the liver. If we did not need cholesterol, our body would not make it. The cholesterol in our blood is being delivered to where it is needed. Cholesterol is delivered to the adrenals, ovaries, testes, and peripheral tissues via low density lipoproteins (LDLs) where it will be used to manufacture hormones. Cholesterol is returned to the liver via high density lipoproteins (HDLs) where it is broken down and made available for later use by the body.

When we have high LDL levels this indicates cholesterol is on the move. So where is all this cholesterol going? Why is it needed? Here are two significant reasons that our body is producing cholesterol. First, cholesterol is found in the damaged areas of arteries, where along with other substances it forms the plaque associated with heart disease. However, cholesterol is the body’s repair substance. Without cholesterol in the blood stream, tears and irritation in the arteries would lead to aneurisms and ruptures. How do these arteries get damaged? A significant amount is due to fluctuations in blood sugar levels along with hormone surges to keep blood sugar levels constant. This damage occurs over time. This is why heart disease and diabetes are considered degenerative diseases – they occur over time.

Second, many of us are in a chronic stress response – we are stressed out. In order to handle stress our body requires cortisol. This is one of the hormones manufactured from cholesterol. For our body to have the cortisol it needs to handle stress, it must make cholesterol, so it can ultimately make cortisol.

What does this tell us? There are two keys to lowering cholesterol – diet and stress reduction. Diet does not necessarily mean eating foods low in cholesterol, it means eating foods in such a way as to keep our blood sugar levels constant. We must look at our complete intake of all dietary factors – carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Stress reduction and stress management means learning relaxation techniques to consciously change our patterns and stop the chronic stress response.

Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. His office is in Coeur d’Alene, ID. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at bernie@brwellness.com, call (208) 771-6570 or go to www.brwellness.com.