Cholesterol is a type of fat and despite being branded as a dangerous food by humans, it does serve certain vital functions and has benefits, which can only be described as essential to the human body. You just can’t live without it.

Although all its functions are important and essential, its role in producing and maintaining the cell membrane stands out.

That is why your liver manufactures 80% of the body’s requirement and your body depends on only 20% of its requirement on the foods that you eat.

When we talk about its benefits, we refer to cholesterol being within its healthy blood levels. When its levels turn high, it can be a very dangerous companion with serious complications.

Cholesterol can be LDL, the bad cholesterol, or HDL, the good cholesterol. Both have independent functions to perform and each has its blood levels to maintain.

Functions of cholesterol

That cholesterol is essential to the body is proved beyond doubt by its various functions across body systems. Check them out below.

1. Vitamin D synthesis

Cholesterol helps to synthesize vitamin D in the skin from sunlight exposure. The ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sunlight convert 7-hydrocholesterol present in the upper layers of the skin to vitamin D (cholecalciferol).

Interestingly, all animal foods that are rich in vitamin D are also rich in cholesterol. Since it is the precursor of vitamin D, lack of cholesterol will also result in a lack of vitamin D.

Vitamin D is essential for the metabolism of calcium and plays an essential role in attaining bone strength.

2. Making of sex hormones

Cholesterol is the precursor to the production of the steroid hormone, pregnenolone. This hormone is manufactured mainly in the adrenal gland and also in the skin, liver, brain, testicles, ovaries, and the retina of the eyes.

It plays a vital role in cognitive function and is more effective for memory enhancement than other steroids.

Pregnenolone is converted into the following hormones:

  • Cortisol, which controls blood sugar and inflammation
  • Aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure and mineral balance
  • Testosterone in males. In females, this testosterone is converted into estrogen.

3. Cholesterol biological function and cell membranes

Each and every cell in our body is surrounded by a membrane called the plasma membrane. The plasma membrane is a biological membrane separating the inside of the cells from the outside and acting as a barrier.

It is a continuous double layer of phospholipids, intermingled with cholesterol and proteins

Cholesterol is an abundant and important constituent of the cell wall. It acts as a security guard allowing only those substances to enter the cell and preventing the unwanted ones.

Without cholesterol, the plasma cell membrane would be too fluid, not strong enough, and very permeable to some unwanted molecules.

Besides being needed to build a cell wall, cholesterol also keeps the cell membrane in place and maintains its fluidity.

It maintains the fluidity of the membrane by stabilizing it and raising its melting point at high temperatures. At low temperatures, it separates the phospholipids and prevents them from binding together and stiffening.

Cholesterol also plays an important role in maintaining the health of the body cells by helping them in the uptake of nutrition.

4. Production of bile acids

Bile acids are produced in the liver by the metabolism of cholesterol and secreted in the bile. Cholesterol is, therefore, very important for the production of bile acids.

Bile acids, in turn, are essential for the digestion and absorption of fats. Therefore, a deficiency of cholesterol will impair the digestion of fats.

5. Cholesterol provides fat-soluble vitamins

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble. In other words, they require cholesterol, which is a type of fat in the blood to dissolve them so that they can then be absorbed from the blood.

Without this lipid, these vitamins will not be able to dissolve in blood and be absorbed in the body causing their deficiency.

6. Cholesterol and brain (nervous system)

Cholesterol is important for memory development. It helps in the uptake of hormones in the brain.

Serotonin is a feel-good hormone of the body and it does not function well if cholesterol levels are low. Cholesterol is a significant constituent of the insulation of nerve fibers and also of the synapses (junctions in the nervous system). Synapses permit the transmission of impulses from one nerve cell to another.

By virtue of it being one of the constituents of the synapses, cholesterol is one of the important factors involved in nerve cells (neurons) communicating with each other and exchanging electrical signals.

To summarize

You cannot underestimate the benefits of cholesterol to the body by virtue of its vital functions.

However, maintaining its optimal levels in the blood is important as high levels of blood cholesterol can be detrimental to your health. The dangers of low levels, too, are grave.