Cholesterol is a lipid found in the cell membranes of all animal tissues, and is transported in the blood plasma of all animals. Cholesterol is also a sterol (a combination steroid and alcohol). Because cholesterol is synthesized by all eukaryotes, trace amounts of cholesterol are also found in membranes of plants and fungi.
The name originates from the Greek chole- (bile) and stereos (solid), and the chemical suffix -ol for an alcohol, as researchers first identified cholesterol in solid form in gallstones by François Poulletier de la Salle in 1769. However, it is only in 1815 that chemist Eugène Chevreul named the compound "cholesterine".
Most of the cholesterol in the body is synthesized by the body and some has dietary origin. Cholesterol is more abundant in tissues which either synthesize more or have more abundant densely-packed membranes, for example, the liver, spinal cord and brain. It plays a central role in many biochemical processes, such as the composition of cell membranes and the synthesis of steroid hormones.
Since cholesterol is insoluble in blood, it is transported in the circulatory system within lipoproteins, complex spherical particles which have an exterior composed mainly of water-soluble proteins; fats and cholesterol are carried internally. There is a large range of lipoproteins within blood, generally called, from larger to smaller size: chylomicrons, very low density lipoprotein (VLDL), intermediate density lipoprotein (IDL), low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL). The cholesterol within all the various lipoproteins is identical.
According to the lipid hypothesis, abnormally high cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia), or, more correctly, higher concentrations of LDL and lower concentrations of functional HDL are strongly associated with cardiovascular disease because these promote atheroma development in arteries (atherosclerosis). This disease process leads to myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke and peripheral vascular disease. Since higher blood LDL, especially higher LDL particle concentrations and smaller LDL particle size, contribute to this process more than the cholesterol content of the LDL particles , LDL particles are often termed "bad cholesterol" because they have been linked to atheroma formation. On the other hand, high concentrations of functional HDL, which can remove cholesterol from cells and atheroma, offer protection and are sometimes referred to colloquially as "good cholesterol". These balances are mostly genetically determined but can be changed by body build, medications, food choices and other factors.