In the world of today and thanks to global media feats, who hasn’t heard yet of that `villain` called cholesterol that destroys the arteries and affects the heart? Who doesn`t worry that he might be its next victim?

Well, as a matter of fact, cholesterol isn’t entirely that health villain it has framed out to be, with its living in infamy and enigmatically linked to heart attacks, strokes, and atherosclerosis of the arteries. Actually, cholesterol is essential to our bodies; it plays an important role in making cell membranes, it is crucial for the synthesis of key hormones like estrogen and testosterone, as well as helping in the production of bile acids necessary for the digestion and absorption of fat, and vitamin D. Cholesterol is so essential to the body that the liver produces all the cholesterol we need. But we can also get a lot of cholesterol from food.

Cholesterol travels around in the bloodstream through high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL):

  • HDL (also popular as the `good cholesterol`) because it picks up cholesterol and carries it back to the liver for disposal.
  • LDL (also popular as the `bad cholesterol`) carries cholesterol to the body tissues in need for it. The negative publicity comes from the fact that if you have too much of it in your bloodstream, it can lead to lipid build up inside the arteries and its clinging to the walls of the arteries. This causes narrowing and eventually clogging of the arteries; a very common and serious health problem known as `atherosclerosis`.

The narrowing of the arteries will hinder the adequate blood flow to various organs of the body, inclusive of the heart and brain. This will make the affected person liable for suffering a heart attack or heart failure, and brain stroke.

High cholesterol levels may exist because of poor diet habits with excessive consumption of food high in saturated fats, such as red meat and butter, associated with unhealthy lifestyles and lack of exercise. Sometimes, though, the cause for abnormally high cholesterol in the body (a cause that might go unnoticed in the absence of rich medical expertise) is the underactive thyroid gland status; known medically as “Hypothyroidism”!

The thyroid gland can be considered as a master regulator of the body metabolism. Among the various important roles thyroid hormones play, they modulate the metabolism of lipids (such as cholesterol) by stimulating their mobilization and breakdown. It is scientifically believed that alterations in thyroid function result in changes in the composition and transport of lipoproteins. In general, overt and subclinical (not severe enough to present definite or readily-observable symptoms) hypothyroidism is associated with high cholesterol mainly due to rise in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.

This important health-related connection has compelled professional societies such as the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists to issue recommendations to all specialized medical professionals who care for people with lipid abnormalities, alerting them to the importance of screening anyone with a new diagnosis of hyperlipidemia for hypothyroidism before proceeding to treatment with lipid-lowering medications.

Getting your thyroid and cholesterol tested…

If your cholesterol levels are high and you`ve never had a thyroid function assessment before, you are encouraged to book an appointment with your trusted Internist to have it checked. Following history taking and clinical assessment, you’ll have certain blood tests to measure your thyroid hormones levels. These tests will help in finding out whether your thyroid is normal or underactive.

If it proves to be underactive, your Internist will discuss with you the most appropriate plan of management. Sometimes, taking the thyroid hormone replacement therapy, under specialized medical supervision, can prove to be the only measure you need to have your cholesterol level under control and evade the intake of cholesterol-lowering medications indefinitely.

Dr. Dragana Sarenac, MD

Internal Medicine Specialist

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