Types, functions, benefits and risks


Lipids are a class of molecules in the body that includes hormones, fats, oils, and waxes. They are essential for your health, but they can also contribute to the development of diseases.

Cerumen , the medical term for ear wax, is a familiar example of lipids. This can give you a visible idea of the thick texture of lipids and why they do not dissolve in water.

It is these qualities that make the lipids you do not see such a problem in the bloodstream. In particular, cholesterol and triglycerides , whether they come naturally or from the foods you eat, can pose a real threat to your heart health. High levels are also associated with an increased risk of stroke , diabetes , and high blood pressure .

This article explains the types of lipids and their effects. This will help you understand the risks associated with high lipid levels, how they are measured, and how to best protect yourself from comorbid conditions.

Types of lipids

The three main types of lipids are phospholipids , sterols, and triglycerides . Each of them plays a role in the body.


Phospholipids make up the outermost layer of cells in the body of both animals and humans. They create a protective layer around cells to support them.

Most people never need to think much about phospholipids. However, there is a rare autoimmune disease called antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), in which the proteins of these lipids are attacked. As a result, the protective layers of cells are damaged.

This condition is more common in people with lupus , especially women. Because APS attacks blood cells and blood vessels, it creates the risk of blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. APS can also cause complications during pregnancy.

Its general name "sticky blood" is an apt description of what happens inside the body when something goes wrong with these key lipids.


Sterols are steroids, a type of hormone. Cholesterol is the main steroid in the human body.

Cholesterol is metabolized in the liver and is involved in many important bodily functions. These include the production of hormones and vitamin D, as well as bile salts, which act on fats so that they can be absorbed by cells.


Triglycerides are the fats and oils that you are familiar with in food. These types of lipids can be saturated or unsaturated , making them liquid or solid at room temperature.

The difference between fat and oil is that oils are unsaturated fats that exist in liquid form at room temperature. Most, but not all, unsaturated fats meet these criteria and are classified as oils, including canola oil, corn oil, and olive oil.

Omega fatty acids are essential nutrients that come from certain foods you eat. Excellent sources are tuna and salmon, as well as some nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. These fats lower inflammation, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels. They reduce the risk of sudden death from a heart attack and prevent blood clots.

Trans fats are fats that have been artificially hydrogenated to give them the texture needed for processed foods. Eating foods that contain trans fat can lead to high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) , also called "bad cholesterol."

There are two types of proteins that carry cholesterol through the bloodstream: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is considered "good" cholesterol because it absorbs cholesterol and returns it to the liver, while LDL is "bad" cholesterol.

The role of lipids in the body.

Lipids are synthesized or stored to support cells and assist in basic processes. Lipids also have many external uses.

In addition to the role of phospholipids in protecting cells, lipids act in the body in a number of ways.

Nervous system

Lipids are an integral part of the nervous system and are found in its myelin sheaths . They are sleeves of adipose tissue that protect nerve cells and increase the conduction of their impulses.

Vitamin absorption.

Lipids allow the body to use vitamins. Lipids help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K:

  • Vitamin A is vital for the immune system and vision, as well as for reproduction.
  • Vitamin D helps strengthen immunity and bone strength.
  • Vitamin E strengthens the immune system, helps prevent blood clots, and protects cells from free radicals, unstable molecules that can cause disease.
  • Vitamin K promotes bone health and helps your body heal safely from injury through its ability to form blood clots.

These are just a few of the vital benefits and functions of these essential vitamins.

Hormone production

Lipids are involved in the production of certain hormones, such as estrogen , testosterone , and cortisol. They play a role in the development of sexual characteristics and are necessary to control the immune system and metabolism.

They also help balance water and sodium levels, control inflammation, and increase the body's resistance and ability to heal.


The main types of lipids include sterols like cholesterol and triglycerides. Both types are vital to the body at a healthy level. These lipids can cause serious health problems when the amounts fall outside the normal range. Lipids perform a number of key functions in the body, including protecting cells and absorbing certain vitamins.

Other uses of lipids

Besides all the things the body uses for lipids, they are also used in other industries like skin care, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.

Skincare and cosmetics

Lipids are used in the cosmetic industry to make a variety of cosmetic and skin care products, such as lotions and creams.

Manufacturers of cosmetics and skin care products add lipids to products to hydrate, protect and repair the skin, and make the skin appear smoother and more radiant.

Pharmaceutical products

Pharmaceutical companies make a variety of medications that contain lipids. Medications vary widely and include steroids (sterols) that are used to treat conditions such as cancer and regulate hormones.

Lipids are also added to some medications to help them work better. They can prolong the effect of the drug, improve drug absorption, or help target a specific area of the body.


While lipids are essential for both good health and your life, too much lipids can increase your risk of liver and heart disease.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and around the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 17.9 million people die each year from cardiovascular disease worldwide.

A buildup of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) can cause blockages in the arteries ( atherosclerosis ), which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. High LDL levels can be avoided by controlling cholesterol and saturated fat intake and achieving adequate HDL levels.

Excess LDL cholesterol is associated with diets rich in fatty meats, junk food, fried foods, milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and processed foods.

Foods that increase HDL levels include high fiber fish, olive oil, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits.

Lipid panels

Your healthcare provider may order a lipid test as part of your routine annual checkup or if they suspect cardiovascular disease.

A lipid panel, often called a cholesterol test, tests your blood to determine your levels of cholesterol (total), LDL, HDL, and triglycerides.

Jessica Olah / Get Medication Information

The results will help your doctor determine your risk for heart disease and events, including heart attacks and strokes.


All three types of lipids – phospholipids, sterols, and triglycerides – are required for many important bodily functions. They provide many health benefits.

At the same time, triglycerides and cholesterol can pose health risks if levels of these normally beneficial lipids are not controlled. The foods you eat can add "bad" LDL cholesterol and raise triglyceride levels, which can cause health problems.

Get the word of drug information

If you are concerned about lipid levels, see your doctor. The lipid panel tests will give you the information you need to start making lifestyle changes, like getting more exercise and changing your diet.

Not all lipids are created equal, and high LDL levels pose a serious risk. So be sure to look not only at your total cholesterol, but also at each of the lipids tested.

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