Cholesterol and Triglycerides - A Matter of Life and Death

by Nickolaos D. Skouras, PhD.

Introduction

Cholesterol is a fat (lipid) that is essential to human life. It builds and repairs the cells of the body, supports the production of sex hormones (such as testosterone and estrogen), and helps the body digest food; large concentrations are found in the brain, spinal chord and liver. The amount of cholesterol the body requires comes partly from diet but mostly from the liver and intestines. The health problems associated with cholesterol arise when the intake from food sources exceeds the body's normal requirements. Blockage of the coronary arteries, by an accumulation of too much cholesterol, causes coronary artery disease; the primary cause of the heart attacks. Annually, as many as 1,500,000 Americans suffer heart attacks; nearly one third (500,00) of these attacks are fatal.

Other lipids, triglycerides, supply the body with fuel for energy. They are stored in adipose (fat) tissue or (combined with cholesterol and proteins) float in the bloodstream in the form of lipoproteins. Triglycerides are normally obtained from foods; however, excessive sugar and alcohol consumption can cause them to be synthesized in the body. The health problems associated with triglycerides arise when the intake of food (containing saturated fats and oils) exceeds the body's normal requirements. An excessive buildup of the body's adipose tissue leads to obesity. Excessive levels of triglycerides in the blood increase a person's risk of heart disease.

Being fats, cholesterol and triglycerides do not dissolve in water; combining with proteins to form lipoproteins facilitates their circulation through the body's watery blood. The two main types: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), differ in the ratio of protein to cholesterol and triglycerides they contain. The "bad" LDL is low in protein relative to these lipids; it becomes oxidized and deposits cholesterol in the walls of the arteries. The "good" HDL is high in protein relative to these lipids; it removes cholesterol from artery walls and carries lipids from body cells to the liver for reuse or disposal in bile.

When measured in a person's blood, the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol and the ratio of LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol are referred to as the "cardiac risk factor ratios." Research has demonstrated that the measurement of these cardiac risk factors in a person's blood is a good measure of that person's risk of developing heart disease.

About 90% of all diabetics are non-insulin dependent. These diabetics have up to 3 times the risk of dying prematurely from a heart attack caused by hardening of the arteries (atheroselerosis) as nondiabetics. Therefore, these diabetics must aggressively reduce the risk factors linked to strokes and heart attacks by attaining as normal a blood glucose level as possible and reducing blood cholesterol to relatively safe levels. In most cases, achieving ideal body weight plays a major role in the restoration of normal blood sugar and cholesterol levels in these diabetics. Diet ( including dietary supplements) is of primary importance and should be faithfully followed before any drug is used.

Are there medications for high levels of cholesterol?

Aside from lipid problems caused by defective genes, a program for the reduction of cholesterol and triglycerides should begin with a change in lifestyle. Proper diet, exercise, weight reduction, and nutrients all can help a person reduce the level of these lipids. However, if the level of cholesterol and triglycerides remains high despite the forgoing lifestyle changes, a person should consult a health care practitioner. There are a number of drugs that can be prescribed to lower total and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, while increasing beneficial HDL.

Are there other treatments for high levels of cholesterol?

As stated above, proper diet, exercise, weight reduction, and nutrients can all help reduce the level of cholesterol and triglycerides in a normal person's body. Research has demonstrated that certain vitamins and minerals can help lower the level of such lipids. It has also been shown that there appears to be a correlation between higher levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

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