The Good and the Bad: Cholesterol Basics You Need to Know

Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body and helps with hormone and vitamin D production. Your body creates all the cholesterol it needs to function; however, some foods also have cholesterol in them.
Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by two types of lipoproteins, low-density lipoproteins and high-density lipoproteins.

Low-density lipoproteins are considered “bad” cholesterol. High levels cause plaque to buildup in arteries, which leads to heart disease and stroke. There are no symptoms of high LDL levels, so your cholesterol must be checked by your doctor regularly.

High-density lipoproteins are “good” cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol to the liver to be broken down and flushed from the body. High levels of HDL actually lower LDL levels, so in a way, the “good” cholesterol fights the “bad” cholesterol. However, it is important to note that HDL only transports 1/4 to 1/3 of cholesterol in the body, so it can never eliminate all LDL.

Triglycerides are fats in the blood used for energy. High triglycerides plus high LDL or low HDL increases the risk for heart attack or stroke due to fatty buildups in arteries.

Getting Tested
When your doctor checks your cholesterol levels, he or she will run a blood test called a lipid profile. The test measures total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides.
Everyone should have their cholesterol checked at least once between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21. Adults age 20 and older should be checked every five years and more often if diagnosed with a heart disease.

Numbers You Want
While these numbers are a good starting point to determining your health, your doctor will only use this as a baseline and will consider other factors when evaluating your overall risk for heart disease and when determining your course of treatment.

Get Your Numbers Right

Saturated fats increase total and LDL cholesterols and are found in dairy products and red meat. Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol, decrease HDL cholesterol, and are found in fried and processed foods. Opt for lean meats, monosaturated fats (olive oil), and low-fat dairy and avoid any foods with partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredients list to reduce the “bad” cholesterol and increase the “good.”

Physical Activity
Even a small increase in daily physical activity can increase HDL levels and improve your overall health. Start with taking a walk during your lunch break, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, or doing a few sit-ups or pushups while watching TV. Work your way up to at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to increase HDL cholesterol levels.

Your doctor will evaluate if medication is necessary based on your cholesterol levels and other factors, such as blood pressure, gender, age, race, family history, and if you smoke. Even though medication can help to regulate your cholesterol levels, changes to your diet and an increase in exercise may still be required.

Written by: Anna Limoges

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