We often read or hear about cholesterol and the negative effects too much of it can have on our health. The US Centers for Disease Control reports that 17% of adults age 20 years and over have high blood cholesterol levels, which can lead to atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease (a form of heart disease) which is the number one killer of men and women in the US. If you want to manage your cholesterol, it makes sense to know something about it. So …
What Is Cholesterol and What Does It Do?
Cholesterol is a lipidic, waxy alcohol found in the cell membranes and transported in the blood plasma of all animals. High levels of cholesterol, in circulation within the bloodstream, are associated with atherosclerosis.
Cholesterol can be ingested in the diet, recycled within the body through reabsorption of bile in the digestive tract, and produced de novo. For a person of about 150 pounds (68 kg), typical total body cholesterol content is about 35 g, typical daily dietary intake is 200-300 mg in the United States and societies with similar dietary patterns and 1 g per day is synthesized de novo.
The name cholesterol originates from the Greek chole (bile) and stereos (solid), and the chemical suffix ol for an alcohol, as François Poulletier de la Salle first identified cholesterol in solid form in gallstones, in 1769. However, it was only in 1815 that chemist Eugène Chevreul named the compound “cholesterine”.
Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body and is used by your body to build healthy cells, as well as some vital hormones. It is also nature’s band-aid in the fact that cholesterol seals up cracks and leaks in the blood vessels themselves. These leaks occur when the walls of our blood vessels crack due to stress, pressure and inflammation. If it weren’t for cholesterol chances are we’d die very young from internal bleeding. However …
When you have high cholesterol, you may develop fatty deposits, called plaque, in your blood vessels. This plaque is a form of heart disease called atherosclerosis and eventually, these deposits make it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. And because of these plaque blocked arteries and blood vessels your heart may not get as much oxygen-rich blood as it needs, which increases the risk of a heart attack. Decreased blood flow to your brain can cause a debilitating and/or life-threatening stroke.
High cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia) is largely preventable and treatable. A healthy diet, low in fat, high in fiber, with plenty of fruit and vegetables coupled with regular exercise can go a long way toward reducing high cholesterol and if those don’t get the job done there are other ways to safely lower cholesterol.
Our bodies transport cholesterol through the bloodstream in something called “lipoproteins,” which are like small packages composed of fat on the inside and protein on the outside. There are three types of lipoproteins, low density lipoprotein (LDL), very low density lipoprotein (vLDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL).
Good Guy Vs Bad Guys
The good guy is HDL cholesterol and helps protect us from coronary artery disease. HDL, is like our internal liquid plummer in the regard that it helps clean our vascular system. Since HDL cholesterol helps to keep arterial plaque from forming it is essential that our HDL cholesterol blood serum levels are as high as possible; preferrably at least 40mg/dl and HDL levels of 60mg/dl or more is a good thing indeed.
The bad guys, vLDL and LDL cholesterol, are not natural bad guys. However, the abuse abuse they receive can cause their “turn-coat” ways. The good news is that the “bad cholesterol” can easily be kept from turning bad once you know the secret. However, to learn the secret you’ll need to either do a lot of research or sign up for my free “Reversing Atherosclerosis” eCourse.
Know Your Cholesterol Levels
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), your total combined blood cholesterol level, LDL and HDL, should be less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter). A level between 200-239 is borderline high, while a level of 240 or more increases your risk for heart disease. The government recently reset the LDL goal at 100 for healthy people. Nobody knows the optimal normal level of LDL cholesterol so at this point one might conclude the lower it is, the better. However, when you take into consideration that it’s the LDL cholesterol that acts as natures band-aid, plugging holes and leaks, that may not necessarily be true.
The balance between the types of cholesterol tells you what your cholesterol level means. If your total cholesterol level is high because of a high LDL cholesterol level, you could be at risk for heart disease or stroke. If your total level is high only because of a high HDL cholesterol level, that’s a good thing and you probably are not at risk. Knowing the ratio between the components is important. The following data explains the different levels and what they mean, based on the recommendations of the NIH.
Major Risk Factors for High LDL Levels
Since high LDL level have been implicated in promoting atherosclerosis it may be wise to look at what may be termed as risk factors that may increase your LDL levels and thereby increase your likely hood of developing plaque clogged arteries. Several factors that may increase LDL are:
- Cigarette smoking
- High blood pressure (140/90 mmHg or higher or on blood pressure medication)
- Low HDL cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL)
- Family history of early heart disease (heart disease in father or brother before age 55; heart disease in mother or sister before age 65)
- Age (men 45 years or older; women 55 years or older)
- Physical inactivity
There are usually no signs or symptoms of high blood cholesterol; therefore, many people don’t know that their cholesterol level is too high until they develop the symptoms of heart disease, such as angina (chest pain). That is why it is important to have your blood tested.
As we age, it becomes more important to know our cholesterol levels. Younger women tend to have lower LDL levels than men, but after age 55, that changes. People should begin having their lipid panel monitored based on family history, but generally at about 30 years old. Depending on what your cholesterol levels are and what other risk factors for heart disease you have, your physician might want to check it annually.
Different types of tests measure the cholesterol in your blood. A lipoprotein profile, which requires fasting, will provide information about your total cholesterol (LDL and HDL). This test also measures triglycerides, another form of fat in your blood (a triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL is desirable).
LDL cholesterol levels
Let’s take a look at some LDL levels.
- Less than 100 is best
- 100-129 is near optimal
- 130-159 is borderline high
- 160-189 is high
- 190 and above is very high
HDL cholesterol levels
- Less than 40 increases your risk for heart disease
- 60 or higher reduces your risk of heart disease
If you cannot get a lipoprotein profile done, knowing your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol can give you a general idea about your cholesterol levels. Testing for total and HDL cholesterol does not require fasting. If your total cholesterol is 200 or more, or if your HDL is less than 40, you will need to have or should have a lipoprotein profile done.