Cholesterol is vital for health. It’s a part of all of our cells. However, there are actually two kinds of cholesterol in our bodies. When the “bad” variety builds up, it can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries”.


What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is needed to build cells. For the most part, our livers produce all the cholesterol we need. A second source of cholesterol comes in with the foods that we eat, especially with foods derived from animals.

There are two types of cholesterol: LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and HDL cholesterol (the good kind).


How Cholesterol Leads to Atherosclerosis in the Veins and Arteries

When your liver produces too much cholesterol and/or your diet contains too much, that extra cholesterol doesn’t get to your cells. Instead, it binds with other substances and deposits itself along the walls of your arteries. This cholesterol can then harden, and there the problems begin.

Once this hardened cholesterol (often called plaque) forms, two things happen. The passage through which your blood flows becomes narrower. This causes less blood flow and higher blood pressure. Secondly, your veins and arteries become less flexible, which also affects blood flow.

When this happens, it is known as a condition called atherosclerosis.

Paradoxically, it would seem that cholesterol would have an easier time settling in your veins, but this condition only happens in arteries. Your arteries are built to handle a lot of pressure going through them at once. This high pressure contributes to plaques. But your veins are a low-pressure system.

This is also demonstrated when a doctor reroutes a bad part of an artery through a vein. Though veins can work as arteries, they do become vulnerable to atherosclerosis once they are connected to the high-pressure parts of your circulatory system.


What this Decreased Blood Flow Can Cause

The decreased blood flow means that blood, which is necessary for our organs to receive vital nutrients and oxygen, is no longer flowing effectively. This can cause organs to begin to not work as efficiently, and in some cases, cause a disruption.

In fact, depending on where this plaque buildup occurs, various areas of the body can be affected. We already know that it can cause heart attacks and strokes, but it can also affect the kidneys.

When the arteries leading to and from the heart become clogged and restricted, a heart attack can occur. Through the same process, the arteries that lead to the brain become blocked, a stroke can happen.

Another thing that high cholesterol may cause: Alzheimer’s disease. Having high cholesterol levels may accelerate the formation of certain kinds of plaques called beta-amyloid plaques, which are sticky protein deposits that damage the brain in people with this condition.

Plaque build-up in the arteries leading to the kidneys can decrease kidney function. The primary function of the kidneys is in removing toxins and waste from the body. A decrease in function can lead to chronic kidney disease. Over time, this can lead to a need for dialysis and in some cases, cause death.

Another thing that can happen is peripheral artery disease. This happens when plaque builds up in the arteries that lead to the pelvis. This can lead to numbness, pain, and certain kinds of infection.

High cholesterol can have an enormous effect on your arteries. A restriction in your blood flow can cause numerous problems for your body. So if your doctor detects that you have a problem, get it treated! Treatments can include dietary changes to a healthier diet, more exercise, and prescription medication.



Family Doctor: High Cholesterol: Symptoms

CDC: Preventing High Cholesterol

Harnett Health: Cholesterol Affect More Than Your Heart

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Atherosclerosis

WebMD: Facts About Cholesterol and Fats