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posted Jan 31, 2015, 1:43 AM by Ranmini Perera   [ updated Dec 2, 2015, 5:48 PM by Upali Salpadoru ]

A Research group at the Max Delbruck centre Molecular Medicine, Berlin, got the shock of their lives when they added cholesterol to some  brain cells  in a petri dish. Nerve cells have tentacle like projections called dendrites. The longest is called the axon. The endings of these join to other nerve cells through highly specialised contact points called synapses. According to them, these synapses may not only passing messages but probably responsible for the learning process and the development of the memory.  

Fig.1.  The cells shown in pink, dark brown and blue are neurons.

 If you are an adult, living in the city, it is quite likely, you too are a victim of this popular disease; cholesterophobia. While this has brought anxiety to most of the middle and upper class gentle folk, multinational pharmaceutical ventures, receive a roaring income, year after year. “In 2004 Pfizer netted $10.9 billion in sales from their cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin (popularly known as Lipitor).
According to recent biomedical research, cholesterol present in our body is ‘the mother of all beneficial fat molecules’. But we are being made to believe, via the sales reps, who even influence the members of the medical profession, that it is the  ‘ father of all evil’.  No other compound in the human system has  ever been vilified, as much as this simple waxy, sterol; named  cholesterol …C27H45OH.

If you have had a fasting lipid profile blood tests, the values of HDL and LDL would have given you  some anxious moments.  These are lipoproteins; compounds containing lipids and proteins linked together. This form is necessary for cholesterol to gain entry into the blood. Eighty percent of the cholesterol you need is made inside your body, mainly by the liver and the intestinal cells. As the cholesterol cannot pass the blood brain barrier it is also synthesized in the brain.  The two important forms, it runs in the blood are ,  Low Density Lipoproteins  LDL, believed to be  the black sheep and  High Density Lipoproteins, the saviours.  No animal can survive if the cholesterol value is lowered below a critical amount.

Most of the cholesterol in our body is locked up in the cell membranes. It is common knowledge that we are made of trillions of tiny  living cells. All these precious cells   are covered with a highly specialised double layered membrane. This membrane while keeping the cell contents safely secured inside, also controls the trafficking of various molecules in and out of the cell. Cholesterol is an essential ingredient for the proper functioning of this process. As the presence of this lipid chemical is so crucial almost all cells have acquired the ability to synthesize it.   
The functional cells in our brains are the neurones (nerve cells).  Nobody knew the exact function of the lesser known Glial cells, which exceeds the neurons by about ten times. It was known  that they made cholesterol to insulate the communication network formed by the nerves.   In 2001 a group of researchers at the Delbruck centre in Berlin, ‘added plain cholesterol to nerve cells in a laboratory dish, the nerve cells began to form synapses  like crazy’. Synapses are junctions through which the nerve cells communicate with each other.

Fig.  A nerve cell showing synapses.
Cholesterol is also an essential ingredient for the synthesis of hormones such as cortisol, the adrenal hormone and the sex hormones testosterone. and oestrogen. It is also essential for the synthesis of the fat soluble vitamins such as  A,  D, and K,  It  also plays an important role in the digestion of food by inducing the production and secretion of bile. But the excess of cholesterol is suspected of forming gallstones. Stones inside the gall bladder.
For a normal person having a proper functioning liver and a heart, need not unnecessarily worry about cholesterol.
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The desirable levels for a normal  adult are as follows;

mg/L = mili grams per Litre,     m mol/ L  = mili moles/Liter




Total blood cholesterol

170 to 210  mg / dL


4  m mol/L

Above  240mg/dL


Above  6.2 m mol/L

LDL Bad cholesterol.

60 to140 mg/ dL


 2.5 m mol/L

Above 140mg/L


Above 4.1m mol/L

HDL  Good cholesterol.

Above 50  mg/dL


More than 1 mmol/L

Below 40 mg/L


Below 1.5 m mol/L


         Cardiac risk ratio


More than 7


40 to 150 mg/L

1.7 m mol/L

Above n150 mg/L

Above 5.0 m mol/L

v     Please note that these values are just guide lines and not universally accepted.

The greatest risk of  high LDL level is the formation of plaque in the narrow arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. This can cause angina and stroke.  Even here cholesterol is not the primary culprit. According to some experts (http;/ it is an amino acid called homocysteine which initiates plaque build up.   This substance scratches the wall of the blood vessels preparing a building site for the cholesterol, calcium and other junk to build up a mound blocking the artery. Deficiencies of the vitamins B9, B6, or B12 can lead to high homocysteine levels. Other causes for the disease could be excessive triglycerides, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and lack of exercise. We wonder why homocysteine levels are not tested in the blood as yet.

It will be extremely beneficial for your health as well as the pocket if you can avoid saturated fats in meat, milk and egg yolk and trans fat in margarines and consume , fruits,  nuts, fish and vegetables supplemented with soy products and veggie oils. This can make favourable adjustments in  your cholesterol, homocysteine and triglyceride levels.

Cholesterol is such an important substance to our system that when it does not come from the food the liver  increases the synthesis to maintain the optimum level. So, when the risk factors are high in the in a patient, the doctors are compelled to  prescribe statins  to lower the LDL levels in spite of their side effects. Yet,  as cholesterol is essential for the development of an embryo, pregnant mothers should refrain from taking  cholesterol lowering drugs.

Cholesterol is nothing to be feared. It is essential for the brain and the body. Yet while leading a lethargic life you should not gobble down high cholesterol food if you wish to lead a healthy life.