Cholesterol is a lipid found in the cell membranes and transported in the blood plasma of all animals. It is an essential component of mammalian cell membranes where it is required to establish proper membrane permeability and fluidity. Cholesterol is the principal sterol synthesized by animals while smaller quantities are synthesized in other eukaryotes such as plants and fungi. In contrast cholesterol is almost completely absent among prokaryotes.
Most cholesterol is synthesized by the body but significant quantities can also be absorbed from the diet. While minimum levels of cholesterol is essential for life, excess can contribute to diseases such as atherosclerosis.
Cholesterol is classified as a sterol (a contraction of steroid and alcohol). The name cholesterol originates from the Greek chole- (bile) and stereos (solid), and the chemical suffix -ol for an alcohol, as researchers first identified cholesterol in solid form in gallstones by François Poulletier de la Salle in 1769. However, it is only in 1815 that chemist Eugène Chevreul named the compound "cholesterine".
Recently, cholesterol has also been implicated in cell signaling processes, where it has been suggested that it assists in the formation of lipid rafts in the plasma membrane. It also reduces the permeability of the plasma membrane to hydrogen ions (protons) and sodium ions.
Cholesterol is essential for the structure and function of invaginated caveolae and clathrin-coated pits, including the caveolae-dependent endocytosis and clathrin-dependent endocytosis. The role of cholesterol in caveolae-dependent and clathrin-dependent endocytosis can be investigated by using methyl beta cyclodextrin (MβCD) to remove cholesterol from the plasma membrane.
Most of the cholesterol in the body is synthesized by the body and some has dietary origin. Cholesterol is more abundant in tissues which either synthesize more or have more abundant densely-packed membranes, for example, the liver, spinal cord and brain. It plays a central role in many biochemical processes, such as the composition of cell membranes and the synthesis of steroid hormones.
Cholesterol is required in the membrane of mammalian cells for normal cellular function, and is either synthesized in the endoplasmic reticulum, or derived from the diet, in which case it is delivered by the bloodstream in low-density lipoproteins. These are taken into the cell by LDL receptor-mediated endocytosis in clathrin-coated pits, and then hydrolysed in lysosomes.
Cholesterol is primarily synthesized from acetyl CoA through the HMG-CoA reductase pathway in many cells and tissues. About 20–25% of total daily production (~1 g/day) occurs in the liver; other sites of higher synthesis rates include the intestines, adrenal glands and reproductive organs. For a person of about , typical total body content is about 35 g, typical daily internal production is about 1 g and typical daily dietary intake is 200–300 mg in the United States and societies adopting its dietary patterns. Of the cholesterol input to the intestines via bile production, 92–97% is reabsorbed in the intestines and recycled via enterohepatic circulation.
Cholesterol is minimally soluble in water; it cannot dissolve and travel in the water-based bloodstream. Instead, it is transported in the bloodstream by lipoproteins—protein "molecular-suitcases" that are water-soluble and carry cholesterol and triglycerides internally. The apolipoproteins forming the surface of the given lipoprotein particle determine from what cells cholesterol will be removed and to where it will be supplied.
Cholesterol is transported towards peripheral tissues by the lipoproteins chylomicrons, very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Large numbers of small dense LDL (sdLDL) particles are strongly associated with the presence of atheromatous disease within the arteries. For this reason, LDL is referred to as "bad cholesterol".
On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles transport cholesterol back to the liver for excretion. Having large numbers of large HDL particles correlates with better health outcomes. In contrast, having small numbers of large HDL particles is independently associated with atheromatous disease progression within the arteries.
Cholesterol is exclusively found in animal fats: all food containing animal fats contains cholesterol. Major dietary sources of cholesterol include cheese, egg yolks, beef, pork, poultry, and shrimp. Human breast milk also contains significant quantities of cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol plays a smaller role in blood cholesterol levels in comparison to fat intake. Trans and saturated fats are a significant contributors to elevated cholesterol levels in the blood stream. Avoiding animal products may decrease the cholesterol levels in the body not through dietary cholesterol reduction alone, but primarily through a reduced saturated fat intake. Those with high cholesterol should limit dietary cholesterol to less than 200mg per day as well as reduce saturated and trans fat intake. Humans as well as other animals naturally produce all the cholesterol the body needs.
According to the lipid hypothesis, abnormally high cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia), or, more correctly, higher concentrations of LDL and lower concentrations of functional HDL are strongly associated with cardiovascular disease because these promote atheroma development in arteries (atherosclerosis). This disease process leads to myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke and peripheral vascular disease. Since higher blood LDL, especially higher LDL particle concentrations and smaller LDL particle size, contribute to this process more than the cholesterol content of the LDL particles, LDL particles are often termed "bad cholesterol" because they have been linked to atheroma formation. On the other hand, high concentrations of functional HDL, which can remove cholesterol from cells and atheroma, offer protection and are sometimes referred to colloquially as "good cholesterol". These balances are mostly genetically determined but can be changed by body build, medications, food choices and other factors.
Conditions with elevated concentrations of oxidized LDL particles, especially "small dense LDL" (sdLDL) particles, are associated with atheroma formation in the walls of arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis, which is the principal cause of coronary heart disease and other forms of cardiovascular disease. In contrast, HDL particles (especially large HDL) have been identified as a mechanism by which cholesterol and inflammatory mediators can be removed from atheroma. Increased concentrations of HDL correlate with lower rates of atheroma progressions and even regression. A 2007 study pooling data on almost 900,000 subjects in 61 cohorts demonstrated that blood total cholesterol levels have an exponential effect on cardiovascular and total mortality, with the association more pronounced in younger subjects. Still, because cardiovascular disease is relatively rare in the younger population, the impact of high cholesterol on health is still larger in older people.
Elevated levels of the lipoprotein fractions, LDL, IDL and VLDL are regarded as atherogenic (prone to cause atherosclerosis). Levels of these fractions, rather than the total cholesterol level, correlate with the extent and progress of atherosclerosis. Conversely, the total cholesterol can be within normal limits, yet be made up primarily of small LDL and small HDL particles, under which conditions atheroma growth rates would still be high. In contrast, however, if LDL particle number is low (mostly large particles) and a large percentage of the HDL particles are large, then atheroma growth rates are usually low, even negative, for any given total cholesterol concentration. Recently, a post-hoc analysis of the IDEAL and the EPIC prospective studies found an association between high levels of HDL cholesterol (adjusted for apolipoprotein A-I and apolipoprotein B) and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, casting doubt on the cardioprotective role of "good cholesterol".
Multiple human trials utilizing HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, known as statins, have repeatedly confirmed that changing lipoprotein transport patterns from unhealthy to healthier patterns significantly lowers cardiovascular disease event rates, even for people with cholesterol values currently considered low for adults. As a result, people with a history of cardiovascular disease may derive benefit from statins irrespective of their cholesterol levels, and in men without cardiovascular disease there is benefit from lowering abnormally high cholesterol levels ("primary prevention"). Primary prevention in women is practiced only by extension of the findings in studies on men, since in women, none of the large statin trials has shown a reduction in overall mortality or in cardiovascular end points.
The 1987 report of National Cholesterol Education Program, Adult Treatment Panels suggest the total blood cholesterol level should be: < 200 mg/dL normal blood cholesterol, 200–239 mg/dL borderline-high, > 240 mg/dL high cholesterol.. The American Heart Association provides a similar set of guidelines for total (fasting) blood cholesterol levels and risk for heart disease:
|Level mg/dL||Level mmol/L||Interpretation|
|< 200||< 5.0||Desirable level corresponding to lower risk for heart disease|
|200–240||5.2–6.2||Borderline high risk|
|> 240||> 6.2||High risk|
However, as today's testing methods determine LDL ("bad") and HDL ("good") cholesterol separately, this simplistic view has become somewhat outdated. The desirable LDL level is considered to be less than 100 mg/dL (2.6 mmol/L), although a newer target of < 70 mg/dL can be considered in higher risk individuals based on some of the above-mentioned trials. A ratio of total cholesterol to HDL—another useful measure—of far less than 5:1 is thought to be healthier. Of note, typical LDL values for children before fatty streaks begin to develop is 35 mg/dL.
Most testing methods for LDL do not actually measure LDL in their blood, much less particle size. For cost reasons, LDL values have long been estimated using the Friedewald formula: [total cholesterol] − [total HDL] − 20% of the triglyceride value = estimated LDL. The basis of this is that Total cholesterol is defined as the sum of HDL, LDL, and VLDL. Ordinarily just the total, HDL, and triglycerides are actually measured. The VLDL is estimated as one-fifth of the triglycerides. It is important to fast for at least eight hours before the blood test because the triglyceride level varies significantly with food intake.
Given the well-recognized role of cholesterol in cardiovascular disease, it is surprising that some studies have shown an inverse correlation between cholesterol levels and mortality in subjects over 50 years of age—an 11% increase overall and 14% increase in CVD mortality per 1 mg/dL per year drop in cholesterol levels. In the Framingham Heart Study, the researchers attributed this phenomenon to the fact that people with severe chronic diseases or cancer tend to have below-normal cholesterol levels. This explanation is not supported by the Vorarlberg Health Monitoring and Promotion Programme, in which men of all ages and women over 50 with very low cholesterol were increasingly likely to die of cancer, liver diseases, and mental diseases. This result indicates that the low cholesterol effect occurs even among younger respondents, contradicting the previous assessment among cohorts of older people that this is a proxy or marker for frailty occurring with age.
A small group of scientists, united in The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, continues to question the link between cholesterol and atherosclerosis. However, the vast majority of doctors and medical scientists accepts the link as fact.