Why Some Cholesterol Does Your Body Good

illustration of liver in human body

High cholesterol levels could place you at risk of developing heart disease if left untreated. Although having too much cholesterol in your body is not healthy, you still need it to carry out certain essential functions in the body. So, you cannot go completely without it.

Yet few people know about its benefits, and even medical experts are still discovering the many roles that it plays in the body.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol—a waxy compound that some have likened to soft candle wax—is a kind of sterol. Sterols are a type of fat found in the tissues of both plants and animals, although only animals have varying amounts of cholesterol. Your body manufactures much of the cholesterol it needs in the liver, but you can also obtain it through your diet. Animal products such as chicken, beef, eggs, or dairy products contain cholesterol.

What's Cholesterol Doing in There?

Although cholesterol tends to get a bad rap, it also performs several important functions in the body:  

  • It plays a role in forming and maintaining cell membranes and structures. Cholesterol can insert between fat molecules making up the cell, making the membrane more fluid. Cells also need cholesterol to help them adjust to changes in temperature.
  • Cholesterol is essential for making a number of critical hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol. Cholesterol is also used to make the sex hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen.
  • The liver also uses cholesterol to make bile, a fluid that plays a vital role in the processing and digestion of fats.
  • Cholesterol is used by nerve cells for insulation.
  • Your body also needs cholesterol to make vitamin D. In the presence of sunlight, cholesterol is converted into vitamin D.

The Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol

If cholesterol is so necessary, why is it sometimes described as "bad" and at other times as "good?"

Your liver packages cholesterol into so-called lipoproteins, which are combinations of lipids (fats) and proteins. Lipoproteins operate like commuter buses that carry cholesterol, other lipids like triglycerides, fat-soluble vitamins, and other substances through the bloodstream to the cells that need them.

  • Low-density lipoproteins, sometimes called “bad cholesterol,” gets its bad reputation from the fact that high levels of it are associated with increasing your risk of heart disease. LDL contains more cholesterol than protein, making it lighter in weight. LDL travels through the bloodstream and carries cholesterol to cells that need it. When it becomes oxidized, LDL can promote inflammation and force lipids to accumulate on the walls of vessels in the heart and rest of the body, forming plaques. These plaques can thicken and may limit or completely block blood and nutrients to affected tissues or organs.
  • HDL—or high-density lipoproteins—is also commonly referred to as "good cholesterol." HDL is heavier than LDL because it contains more protein and less cholesterol. HDL gets its good reputation from the fact that it takes cholesterol from the cells and brings it to the liver. Having higher levels of HDL may also help lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Krause MR, Regen SL. The structural role of cholesterol in cell membranes: from condensed bilayers to lipid rafts. Acc Chem Res. 2014;47(12):3512-21. doi:10.1021/ar500260t

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. How it's made: cholesterol production in your body.

  3. Zhang J, Liu Q. Cholesterol metabolism and homeostasis in the brain. Protein Cell. 2015;6(4):254-64. doi:10.1007/s13238-014-0131-3

  4. MedlinePlus. LDL: the "bad" cholesterol.

  5. Navab M, Reddy ST, Van lenten BJ, Fogelman AM. HDL and cardiovascular disease: atherogenic and atheroprotective mechanisms. Nat Rev Cardiol. 2011;8(4):222-32. doi:10.1038/nrcardio.2010.222

Additional Reading
  • Dipiro JT, Talbert RL. Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiological Approach, 9th ed.

  • Whitney EN and SR Rolfes. Understanding Nutrition, 14ed. Wadsworth Publishing.

By Jennifer Moll, PharmD
Jennifer Moll, MS, PharmD, is a pharmacist actively involved in educating patients about the importance of heart disease prevention.