Cholesterol helps your body develop
Cholesterol begins to influence your body even before you’re born. According to a 1996 report in the journal Science, cholesterol enhances an embryo’s healthy development by triggering the activity of the specific genesthat instruct embryonic cells to become specialized body structures — arms, legs, spine, and so on. Sadly, as Science reported, approximately one in every 9,000 babies is born with a birth defect linked to the fetus’s failure to make the cholesterol it needs.
In 2003, researchers at the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute linked a pregnant woman’s cholesterol deficiency to a defect in the fetal brain called HPE (the failure of the brain to divide normally into two halves). Ninety-nine percent of embryos with HPE are spontaneously aborted; those born live experience severe mental retardation, are unable to walk or talk, and usually die within the first year of life. To prevent these problems, pregnant women are often advised not to take cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Cholesterol holds your cells together
Think back to your first chemistry or physics class. Never took chemistry or physics? Well, then imagine being in class where one of the first things your teacher wants you to know is that there’s no such thing as a solid substance.
Things that look solid — this book, that lamp, you, and me — are actually gazillions of individual atoms, molecules, and cells whirling around in space, held together only by an exchange of electrical charges. If you can’t remember much chemistry or physics, check out the “Recognizing the difference between an atom, a molecule, and a body cell” sidebar in this chapter. Mark your place, read the sidebar, and then come right back.
Some things that look solid aren’t solid. They’re simply groups of cells held together by electrical charges that keep the cells in place so that a piece of this page or a piece of your finger doesn’t go spinning off into space. Individual cells stay intact because they have a cell membrane, an outer skin that serves as neat and tidy packaging for the cell.
One requirement for healthy cell membranes is — drumroll please — cholesterol. A whopping 90 percent of all the cholesterol in your body is in your cell membranes. The cholesterol protects the integrity of the cell membrane, helping to keep it flexible and strong.
If you were to diet so stringently or use so many cholesterol-lowering drugs that your cholesterol level fell to zero (an impossibility by the way), your cell membranes would be very dry and easily torn. The stuff inside the cells would leak out, and cells would die all over the place. That would sort of put an end to the whole darn shootin’ match. Every healthy body cell needs some cholesterol, and so does every healthy brain.