Cholesterol is a waxy substance. It circulates in your bloodstream and plays a key role in your body, helping to make cells, vitamins, and other hormones.¹
Most people dread the term cholesterol and associate it with heart conditions and other health complications like diabetes and hypertension. While high concentration levels of cholesterol in the blood are harmful, your body needs some cholesterol to carry out important functions.
But what is cholesterol? Is cholesterol a steroid or is it a hormone?
Here’s a handy guide on what you need to know about the relationship between cholesterol and steroids. Find out where they come from and why your body needs them.
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Steroids are organic compounds, or hormones, that occur naturally in the body. They are made in the adrenal glands located above your kidneys, the testes, the ovaries, or the placenta during pregnancy.²
Steroid hormones are divided into mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, androgens, estrogens, and progestogens.
They can also be made in a lab and used as treatments for certain health conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, and some skin conditions. These drugs are known as corticosteroids, or steroids for short.³
Another man-made steroid type is an anabolic steroid. This is a synthetic version of the male hormone, testosterone. Doctors can prescribe it in specific cases where the body is not making enough natural testosterone. It can also help improve muscle mass in patients suffering from severe muscle loss due to certain health conditions.
Steroids play an important role in your body. They are differentiated by their chemical structure and can be found in plants, animals, and fungi.
Cholesterol is a type of steroid in the sense that it belongs to the sterols, a subgroup of steroids due to their similar chemical structure.⁴
However, cholesterol is also the main precursor in steroid synthesis. This means that all naturally occurring steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol.² ⁵
The right amount of cholesterol helps the body function properly. It’s a major building block for cell membranes and plays a key role in metabolism and digestion.
While too much cholesterol can pose health risks, the right amount has numerous benefits.
Here are some of the functions of cholesterol in the body:
Helps in making certain hormones that facilitate the body’s normal functioning, like sex hormones and cortisol
Plays a key role in digestion as the liver uses it to make bile acids, which help break down fats
Helps build the body’s cells
Helps in vitamin D synthesis
Facilitates normal functioning of the cell membranes
Cholesterol is a precursor to vitamins and hormones like vitamin D, estrogen, and cortisol.⁵ It is also one of the main components of the cell membrane. Approximately 65–80% of the cellular cholesterol in your body is found in the cells’ plasma membranes.⁵
Your liver makes most of your body’s cholesterol, while the rest comes from the food you eat. It occurs naturally in animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs.
Cholesterol cannot be found in plants. They contain different versions known as sterols and stanols. You can obtain these from foods such as legumes, nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating such foods was found to help remove excess cholesterol from the body to help you achieve a healthy blood level of cholesterol.⁶
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty-like substance. This makes it difficult for it to travel on its own through the bloodstream. Lipoproteins are molecules that can carry cholesterol particles and help transport them around the body.
There are three main types of cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins:
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
Very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL)
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered to be “bad” cholesterol. In excess, it can contribute to fatty buildups (plaques) on the artery walls, which make them stiff and narrow. This is a condition called atherosclerosis. This condition increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as peripheral artery diseases (PAD), heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke.⁷
HDL is considered to be the “good” type of cholesterol. It may help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by facilitating the removal of LDL from the arteries back to the liver for elimination. This prevents it from accumulating on the walls of your blood vessels.
However, HDL cholesterol doesn’t eliminate all LDL cholesterol. It eliminates approximately one-third to one-fourth of the LDL cholesterol, as your body still needs a certain level of LDL in the blood.⁷
Very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) are also considered to be “bad” as they carry mostly triglycerides and a small amount of cholesterol to the body’s tissues.
Triglycerides are not cholesterol. They are different types of fat.
Your body makes triglycerides by converting unused calories so they can be used as an energy source between meals when the body isn’t intaking enough calories. Your body can also get triglycerides from the food you eat.
Too much triglyceride can cause health problems. High triglyceride levels can lead to an increased risk of pancreatitis, heart attack, and other cardiovascular issues.
Your doctor will perform a lipid profile test and analyze the results against people of the same age and biological sex.
If your lipid levels need adjusting, your doctor will recommend a regimen for you to follow. This might involve making changes to your diet and exercise regime.
In particular situations, especially with some high-risk groups, a doctor may also prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication.
The chart below represents ideal cholesterol levels by age and sex.
Too much cholesterol is unhealthy. Taking time to have your cholesterol levels checked is important as it helps monitor your health to detect the risk of cardiovascular disease. It is particularly important if you have an existing health condition, including diabetes and/or high blood pressure.
The liver is responsible for making most of the cholesterol in the body. Your dietary cholesterol makes up the rest. You might assume that your dietary cholesterol could significantly impact your blood cholesterol levels. However, this isn’t the case.
A recent study published in 2021 found that the main contributor to developing high blood cholesterol is not dietary cholesterol — it’s dietary saturated fats.⁸
When you eat too much saturated fat, these products reduce the liver’s ability to eliminate excess LDL cholesterol, leading to its accumulation in the blood and tissues.
Often, foods that are high in saturated fats are also high in cholesterol, such as red and processed meat, full-fat dairy and cheese, fried food, and baked goods. However, some foods, such as eggs and shellfish, have high levels of cholesterol but not saturated fats. For this reason, these foods could be included as part of a healthy diet in moderation.
Leading a healthy lifestyle is a great way to reduce the excess levels of cholesterol in your body. This can be determined by the type of food you eat and food portions. Limiting your intake of saturated fats, processed foods, and sugar is key to lowering high cholesterol levels.
Your doctor will recommend consuming a healthy diet if you have health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes or a high risk of developing heart conditions.
Ensure that your diet contains low levels of saturated fats, as they contribute most to developing high LDL levels.⁹
Avoiding foods with high cholesterol content is also recommended. Replace them with plants and nuts that are high in plant sterols to help remove excess cholesterol from your body.
You may also want to avoid cooking oils, fried foods, and refined carbohydrates. Instead, eat foods that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These can improve your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Foods that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include the following:
Nuts and seeds
Consult your doctor to get a healthy eating plan that will help reduce your cholesterol levels.
Although most people believe that cholesterol is unhealthy, your body needs this essential fatty substance to facilitate many functions.
In addition to aiding digestion, metabolism, vitamin D synthesis, and building cell membranes, cholesterol plays an important role in the production of essential hormones that regulate important body functions.
Cholesterol is the main precursor in steroid synthesis. All steroids produced in the body are derived from cholesterol. Cholesterol itself is a sterol that is produced by the liver. It also comes from dietary sources.
Eating healthy foods and avoiding saturated fats will help lower your cholesterol levels. This can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular problems like heart attack and stroke.
Reducing your meat intake and including more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds in your diet can also help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels and improve your overall health.
Speak to your doctor about a lipid profile test. Through this test, your doctor will be able to determine your blood cholesterol levels and advise you if they are too high.
Your doctor will take a blood sample and carry out a test known as a lipid profile to measure your cholesterol and triglyceride blood levels.
Anyone can have their cholesterol levels checked, including children and older adults.
Healthy adults are advised to get their lipid profile checked every 4–6 years.
You may need to have your cholesterol levels measured more frequently if you consume an unhealthy diet (particularly if you consume lots of saturated fats), are overweight, have diabetes, or have any other risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
What is cholesterol? | American Heart Association
Steroids | MedlinePlus
Biochemistry, cholesterol (2022)
HDL (good), LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides | American Heart Association