Why cholesterol isn't all bad

by JOHN BRIFFA, Daily Mail

One of the most consistent health messages to come from the medical profession over the past decade has been the need to control cholesterol levels in the body.

Cholesterol can clog our arteries and increase our risk of succumbing to conditions such as heart disease and stroke. However, while cholesterol in the bloodstream may indeed pose some risk to our health, it isn't all bad.

A type of cholesterol known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is well known to actually reduce the risk of major killers.

A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that high levels of HDL cholesterol were associated with longevity.

Here, we take a closer look at the effects of cholesterol in the body, and explore proven ways to boost HDL levels and enhance health.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance which has multiple roles in the body: it is a natural constituent of all the body's cells, and an essential ingredient in bile and several important hormones.

However, in excess, cholesterol can form a sediment out on the inside of the body's arteries.

This process, known as 'atherosclerosis', generally progresses as we age. As a result, one or more arteries may become so blocked that the formation of a small blood clot or spasm in the vessel wall may cause complete blockage of an artery.

Blockage of a vessel supplying blood to the heart muscle results in a heart attack, while blockage of an artery leading to the brain is the most common cause of stroke.

Cholesterol travels around the body in the bloodstream. Being a fat, cholesterol itself cannot dissolve in blood. To get around this, the body wraps cholesterol in protein to make blood components called 'lipoproteins'.

Lipoproteins come in two basic types: low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is essentially responsible for dumping cholesterol on the inside of artery walls, and is therefore often referred to as 'bad cholesterol'.

HDL, on the other hand, seems to have the opposite effect, and helps to remove LDL from the blood.

Studies show that high levels of HDL in the bloodstream are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. For this reason, HDL is often dubbed 'good cholesterol'.

The research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society studied cholesterol levels in a group of centenarians (individuals who are at least 100 years old), their children, their children's spouses and an unconnected group of individuals in their 60s.

Interestingly, this study found high levels of HDL cholesterol in the centenarians and their children compared to the other individuals.

In men, low levels of LDL and high levels of HDL seemed to confer some longevity-enhancing effect, while in women, a high HDL, irrespective of the LDL was enough to afford them protection from disease.

Increasing HDL levels is quite likely to impart considerable health benefits. Many different lifestyle factors have been shown to increase HDL levels in the body. Studies show that fish oils, olive oil and garlic can raise HDL levels.

Several studies have shown that alcohol consumption increases HDL levels. However, in excess, alcohol may increase the risk of conditions such as high blood pressure, heart rhythm irregularities and liver disease.

Another useful beverage for raising HDL levels is green tea. While some foodstuffs tend to increase HDL levels, others do quite the reverse. The consumption of certain sugars and starches has been linked with low HDL levels.

The foods to avoid are those which tend to release sugar quickly into the bloodstream, including chocolate, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, white bread, white rice, pasta and potatoes.

There is a wealth of evidence linking exercise to raised HDL levels. One study in women showed that running improved HDL, and that the greater the level of exercise, the higher the HDL level rose.

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