What is Cholesterol?
As mentioned above, cholesterol in and of itself, is a natural function of the human body. Every living being requires a certain amount of fat to exist. Like everything in nature, it only becomes a problem when there is an imbalance.
The processing of fat begins when it gets absorbed in the intestines. From there it heads to the liver. The fat requires a delivery system to the rest of the body to be used immediately but also to be stored in fat cells for future use.
In order for the fat to enter the delivery system, while it is in the liver it is split into two different types of fat, cholesterol and triglycerides.
Once this transformation takes place, the two types of fat (cholesterol and triglycerides) are packed into vehicles for carrying the fat to the fat cells throughout the body using the bloodstream. These vehicles are called lipoproteins.
There are three types of lipoproteins:
1. Very Low Density Lipoproteins (VLDL)
2. Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL)
3. High Density Lipoproteins (HDL)
Under normal circumstances, the bloodstream does a very efficient job of carrying the LDL and HDL Lipoproteins throughout the body.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat like substance that presents itself naturally in cell walls and membranes everywhere in your body. Your body uses cholesterol to produce many hormones. It also uses it to produce vitamin D and the bile acids that help to digest fat.
Where problems arise is when there is an over abundance of cholesterol in your bloodstream. The cholesterol deposited by the LDL leads to a narrowing of the blood vessels.
If this occurs, the excess can be deposited in the arteries of the heart which could result in stroke or heart disease. This is called atherosclerosis. This is why LDL is known as “bad cholesterol.”
HDL usually collects the bad cholesterol and takes it back to the liver. That’s why HDL is known as “good cholesterol.”
Cholesterol is not the only cause of heart disease, but it is a contributing factor. Here’s how it works.
Cholesterol can only attach to the inner lining of the artery if it has been damaged. Once the lining of the artery is damaged, white blood cells rush to the site followed by cholesterol, calcium and cellular debris. The muscle cells around the artery are altered and also accumulate cholesterol.
The fatty streaks in the arteries continue to develop and bulge into the arteries. This cholesterol “bulge” is then covered by a scar that produces a hard coat or shell over the cholesterol and cell mixture. It is this collection of cholesterol that is then covered by a scar that is called “plaque.”
The buildup of plaque narrows the space in the arteries through which blood can flow, decreasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients. This cuts down the supply of blood and oxygen to the tissues that are fed by that blood vessel.
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The elasticity of the blood vessel is reduced and the arteries’ ability to control blood pressure is compromised. If there is not enough oxygen carrying blood passing through the narrowed arteries, the heart may give you a pain that is called angina.
The pain usually happens when you exercise because at that time your heart requires more oxygen. Usually it is felt in the chest or the left arm and shoulder, although it can happen without any symptoms at all.
Plaque can vary in size as well as shape. All through the coronary arteries you can find many small plaques that cover less than half of an artery opening. Some of these plaques are completely invisible in the tests that doctors use to identify heart disease.
The medical community used to think that the primary concern was the larger plaques. They thought these posed a greater threat because of their size and that they were more likely to cause a complete blockage of the coronary arteries.
While it is true that the larger plaques are more likely to cause angina, it is the smaller plaques that are packed with cholesterol and covered by scars that are more dangerous. They are considered unstable and prone to ruptures or bursting releasing their load of cholesterol into the bloodstream. This causes immediate clotting within the artery. If the blood clot blocks the artery totally, it will stop the blood flow and a heart attack occurs.
The muscle on the farther side of the occurring clot fails to get the oxygen it needs and begins to die. This kind of damage can be permanent.
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