Cholesterol is the most common steroid in the body. It is a precursor to vitamin D and many steroid hormones, including testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol.
Cholesterol belongs in the family of steroids because it shares a similar chemical structure.
This article discusses cholesterol and its importance and role in the body. It also explores the relationship between cholesterols, steroids, and lipids.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
Cholesterol is a type of lipid or fat within the body. The liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs, but a person can also obtain it from animal food sources, such as meat, cheese, and eggs.
This waxy substance is a primary component of the cell membrane, a thin layer of tissue that surrounds and protects every living cell. The body uses cholesterol as a precursor to making vitamin D, bile acid, and steroid hormones.
Cholesterol present in the bloodstream can have protective effects, as high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or adverse effects, as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), on cardiovascular health, depending on how it moves within lipoproteins.
Excess LDL cholesterol in a person’s blood circulation can lead to the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Steroids are a type of lipids with a distinct chemical structure. While they are dissimilar to other lipids in structure, scientists classify them as lipids because they are hydrophobic — meaning they repel water — and insoluble in water.
All steroids have four linked carbon rings. From this basic component, various functional groups may attach to form different types of steroids.
In the body, steroid hormones all derive from cholesterol. There are different classes of steroids grouped according to which receptors in the body they bind to. These
- Glucocorticoids: This hormone
regulatesblood glucose levels by preserving plasma glucose for the brain during stress for optimal brain function. Examples include cortisone.
- Mineralocorticoids: This hormone regulates salt and water imbalances in the body. Examples include aldosterone.
- Estrogens: This hormone promotes sexual and reproductive development in females.
- Androgens: This hormone is crucial for reproductive and sexual function in males.
- Progestagens: These hormones are active during pregnancy and help maintain it.
Cholesterol is a steroid because it shares the chemical structure of four fused carbon rings with other steroids.
Specifically, it is a sterol, which is a class of lipid with an alcohol (hydroxyl) or -OH group. This makes it a molecule with both hydrophobic and hydrophilic — meaning water-attracting — properties.
Sterols are present in animals and plants. Plant sterols are present in:
Lipids are a category of molecules comprising fats and oils. There are a variety of lipids in the body, with different structures and diverse roles.
Chemically, lipids comprise chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. They are not water soluble, meaning they do not mix well in water but are soluble in organic solvents.
They play a crucial role in many vital processes in the body and are diverse in their structure. There are four main groups of lipids:
- fatty acids
- glycerides or glycerol-containing lipids
- nonglyceride lipids
- complex lipids
A steroid is a type of nonglyceride lipid, along with triglycerides, phospholipids, and sterols.
Cholesterol is an important steroid that the body produces.
The body needs a small amount of cholesterol to perform vital body functions,
- forming and maintaining cells and regulating membrane fluidity
- making vitamin D and hormones such as testosterone and estrogen
- forming fat-dissolving bile acid to help with metabolism
- functioning as
regulating and signalingmolecules along the cell membrane
Cholesterol cannot travel through the blood by itself and needs to attach to proteins to move through the bloodstream. Different types of lipoproteins have different purposes. Two main types include:
- LDL cholesterol: This type makes up
mostof the body’s cholesterol. Health professionals sometimes refer to it as “bad” cholesterol because it collects in blood vessels and causes plaque buildup.
- HDL cholesterol: Health experts also call this type “good cholesterol” because it carries cholesterol to the liver, which removes it from the body.
Too much “bad” cholesterol or insufficient “good” cholesterol increases the risk of cholesterol building up in the inner walls of arteries. This can narrow and harden arteries, causing atherosclerosis.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides the optimal cholesterol levels for individuals according to their age and gender, in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl).
|Type of cholesterol
|Anyone 19 or younger
|Males aged 20 or over
|Females aged 20 or over
|less than 170 mg/dl
|less than 120 mg/dl
|less than 130 mg/dl
|less than 130 mg/dl
|less than 100 mg/dl
|less than 100 mg/dl
|less than 100 mg/dl
|more than 45 mg/dl
|40 mg/dl or higher
|50 mg/dl or higher
- healthy adults undergo testing every 4–6 years
- people undergo testing more frequently if they have heart disease, a family history of high cholesterol, or risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as obesity and high blood pressure
- individuals test at least once between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about steroids and cholesterol.
Do steroids derive from cholesterol?
Cholesterol is the precursor for steroid hormones in the human body. Aside from steroids, cholesterol is also crucial in making vitamin D and bile salts.
Is cholesterol a steroid or alcohol?
Cholesterol belongs to a group called sterols or steroid alcohols. A sterol is a subgroup of steroids. It is a type of lipid with an -OH (alcohol) group.
Is cholesterol a protein?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance and not a protein. However, cholesterol does not mix with water and blood, so the body packages cholesterol with proteins. It then travels across the bloodstream as protein-covered particles called lipoproteins.
Cholesterol is a type of steroid the body produces to perform many vital functions.
It is the precursor to many steroid hormones, including sex hormones and hormones necessary for glucose metabolism and ion balances in the body.
While the body needs cholesterol, excess levels of the substance may put a person at risk of cardiovascular diseases.