Cholesterol is one of many substances used in the body to stay healthy. Much of the cholesterol we need is produced naturally, and some of it comes from the foods we eat. While many people believe that all cholesterol is bad, in fact there are two types of cholesterol, one that is good and one that is considered bad. Too much of one kind, or not enough of another, can increase your risk of heart problems and stroke.
Cholesterol is used by your body to produce cell membranes, and some hormones. Over time, however, high levels of cholesterol can cause plaque, or hardening of the arteries. When this happens, the coronary arteries, which carry oxygen to the heart, become narrow and blood flow to the heart is slowed down or blocked. If there is not enough blood and oxygen reaching your heart, you may suffer chest pain, and if the blood supply to the heart is completely cut off the result is a heart attack. If the blood flow to the brain is blocked, this may result in a stroke.
Cholesterol and other fats do not dissolve in your blood. They are transported to and from the cells by special carriers called lipoproteins. The low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is known as the bad cholesterol. Too much of it can clog your arteries. High density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as the good cholesterol. It carries cholesterol away from your arteries so it can be removed by your liver. High levels of HDL cholesterol may lesson your risk of heart attack. Lowering cholesterol levels that are too high may reduce your risk of a heart attack. Lower cholesterol levels reduces the risk for developing heart disease and the chance of having a stroke.
Your body makes some cholesterol in the liver, and the rest comes from cholesterol in animal products that you eat, such as meats, poultry, fish, eggs, butter, cheese and whole milk. Saturated fat from animal products and some tropical oils, such as palm kernel oil and coconut oil, as well as trans fats, found in stick margarines and many processed foods, are harmful because they cause your body to produce more cholesterol. Plant foods such as fruits, grains, vegetables and vegetable oils do not contain cholesterol.
Blood tests can screen your cholesterol to measure your levels of the two types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL. The good cholesterol, HDL, is what the body uses to keep the bad cholesterol, LDL, from attaching to your artery walls and clogging the flow of blood. Healthy levels of HDL also help prevent heart attack and stroke. Low levels of HDL can increase the risk of heart disease.
When looking at blood work test results to determine your cholesterol levels, there are some key numbers to consider. Cholesterol levels are generally reported in levels of milligrams per deciliter, or mg/DL. Your Total Blood Cholesterol Level, sometimes called Serum levels, should ideally be below 200 mg/dL. Anything over 240 mg/dL is considered high cholesterol and puts you at more than twice the risk of coronary heart disease.
Your blood test results should break down your cholesterol levels for you. The good cholesterol, HDL, should ideally be at least 60 mg/dL, or even higher, to protect your heart from disease. Less than 50 mg/dL for women or less than 40 mg/dL for men is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
The lower the LDL, or bad cholesterol numbers, the lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. This number is even more important than the overall blood serum number in determining risk factors for heart attack. Generally, the optimal number for LDL cholesterol is less than 100 mg/dL. Over 130 mg/dL is considered high, and 190 or above is considered very high.
The final number to consider, and one that is often overlooked, to evaluate your risk for heart disease due to high cholesterol is your triglyceride level. Triglycerides are the chemical form of fat in your bloodstream. They are a type of lipid, and when you consume calories, your body coverts any that it doesn’t need right away for energy into triglycerides. These lipids are stored in fat cells for later use, when hormones release them for energy between meals. Simple carbohydrates such as sugar and white flours are especially bad for increasing your triglyceride count, leading to high triglycerides. High triglycerides are generally caused by lifestyle, and can be corrected by making changes in your habits, such as controlling weight, exercising, and reducing smoke, alcohol and foods with sugars. A normal, low risk level of triglycerides is less than 150 mg/dL. Anything over 200 mg/dL is considered high risk for heart related illness and disease.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults maintain a triglyceride level of around 100 mg/dL or lower. However, the association doesn’t recommend using prescription drug therapy to reach this optimal level. Since triglyceride levels respond so well to lifestyle changes and diet adjustments, these things are generally encouraged instead.
The main goal of any cholesterol lowering treatment, with or without prescription medications, is to reduce LD cholesterol levels. The usual course of treatment is to follow a cholesterol lowering diet, to increase physical activity, and to lose weight, if necessary or maintain a healthy weight. In addition, drug treatment may be needed to help lower LDL levels. Keep in mind tht even if you begin drug treatment for high cholesterol, you will still need to continue to follow a cholesterol lowering diet, to engage in physical activity, and to manage your weight.
While it is possible to regulate your cholesterol levels with diet and exercise alone, often these are enough, and prescription drug therapies will be needed. Knowing your cholesterol levels can help you know how to keep your heart healthy and free of disease. Understanding the different types of cholesterol and how to regulate them will help you stay healthy and fit. Following your doctor’s recommendations for medications, diet and exercise will help you prevent heart disease and stroke.