Recently, after participating in a meeting attended by a few high-powered CVD researchers I returned home plagued by a most simplistic question: What is the purpose of LDL cholesterol? Please refrain from bursting into uncontrollable spasms of laughter; I am well aware that as a clinical lipidologist I never imagined such a question would have the capacity to keep me up at night. And yet it did. And so I called my faithful counsel, upon whom I can always rely to extricate me from any lipid conundrum. Tom Dayspring responded to my query unflustered, promptly sending me articles to help me find my way. I read them and this is what I realized. LDL cholesterol is essentially garbage. The story goes something like this.
Our livers manufacture triglyceride – (TG) and cholesterol – containing lipoprotein particles called VLDLs. This is old news. VLDL contains about 80% TG and 20% cholesterol. Its purpose is to nourish our organs. As these particles pass through the tiny capillaries of our various organs, enzymes called Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL) snip the fatty acids from their TG backbone, Glycerol. This too is old news. These released fatty acids are either used for energy or stored by our organs for future needs. The shrunken down VLDL particles, devoid of most of their TG energy content, are now re-dubbed. They have become LDL particles. They are cholesterol-rich. Their content represents what most people speak about after visiting their doctors – LDL-C or LDL cholesterol. Here’s where it gets intriguing. Although any lipid specialist can tell you that every single cell in our body has the capacity to make cholesterol, most believe that the cholesterol contained in LDL particles has some greater purpose. Our cells however do not need the cholesterol contained in LDL particles; nonetheless, most of us believe they use it. This belief is untrue. LDL-C is actually not utilized to any significant degree by any organ systems in human beings. Other animals may use some of it here and there, but not us. We just don’t need it. In fact, the goal of LDL particles is to get to the liver ASAP for disposal. Otherwise, these particles tend to land in places where we do not want or need them, our blood vessel walls to be more specific. You know how that story goes – plaque forms; plaque ruptures; heart attacks or strokes ensue…
So when people tell you not to worry about your high LDL-C levels, please reconsider abandoning your doctor’s LDL-C-lowering advice. And definitely don’t worry that low LDL-C levels will deprive your cells of their much-needed cholesterol. It won’t. Your cells are quite capable of making their own supply of cholesterol. On a somewhat esoteric note, it is true that the surface of LDL particles transports some vital nutrients around the body (vitamin E for one). This fact however does not imply that more LDL is better than less. We need just a tiny bit for non-cholesterol purposes. Excess does us no good, and in truth it does us a good deal of harm.
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