The Basics of Cholesterol – What You Need to Know

Cholesterol is a term heard often, but do you know what it is or what cholesterol levels mean about your health? In this article, you will learn what cholesterol is, what impact it has on your body and what you can do to raise your good levels and lower your bad levels.

If we wanted to start off with a scientific definition, we need to look no further than the dictionary. In the dictionary, cholesterol is defined this way: a sterol, C27 H46 O, that occurs in all animal tissues, especially in the brain, spinal cord and adipose tissue, functioning chiefly as a protective agent in the skin and myelin sheaths of nerve cells, a detoxifier in the bloodstream, and as a precursor of many steroids: deposits of cholesterol form in certain pathological conditions, as gallstones and atherosclerotic plaques.

Pretty scientific. Let’s make cholesterol easier to understand.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all cells of your body. It’s carried through your bloodstream attached to proteins called lipoproteins. Your body actually needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and stuff that helps you digest food. Your body, through the liver, makes all the cholesterol it needs.

Your body is one source of cholesterol, the other being what you eat. For example, meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products contain cholesterol. These foods are high in saturated and trans fat and that’s a problem because these fats cause your liver to make more cholesterol than normal. For some people, this added production means they go from a normal cholesterol level to one that’s unhealthy.

What Is “Good” Cholesterol or HDL?

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as “good” cholesterol because it helps remove other forms of cholesterol from your bloodstream. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. HDL picks up excess cholesterol in your blood and takes it back to your liver where it is broken down and removed from your body.

Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. When it comes to HDL cholesterol, higher numbers are better. For both men and women, your HDL number should be 60 mg/dL or above.

Is it possible to raise your HDL level? Yes! Increased physical activity, which also helps you lose weight, can lower your triglycerides while increasing your HDL levels. Benefits can be seen with as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week.

In terms of diet, avoid food containing trans fats, as they can increase LDL cholesterol (more below) and lower HDL cholesterol levels. Foods prepared with shortening, such as cakes and cookies, often contain trans fats, as do most fried foods as well as some margarines. Cholesterol is found only in animal products. Foods from plants do not contain cholesterol – eat those greens!

What Is “Bad” Cholesterol or LDL?

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol transports cholesterol particles throughout your body. LDL cholesterol builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow. Your body produces more than enough cholesterol on its own to stay healthy and cholesterol problems typically develop because of eating foods which contain additional cholesterol, raising blood cholesterol levels.

Why do elevated LDL numbers matter? High levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol can lead to heart disease.

Excess LDL cholesterol in your blood gets deposited into arteries, the blood vessels that feed the heart and brain. Then these deposits, combined with other substances, form plaque. Plaque is a thick, hard deposit in the blood vessel that can narrow the passageway inside the artery, slowing blood flow to the heart muscle. The name for the buildup of plaque in the arteries is atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.

How Is Cholesterol Tested?

Discovering your HDL and LDL levels is easy – a simple blood test will reveal your current numbers. Testing specifically for cholesterol is called a lipid panel test and it measures all of the fats in your blood, including HDL, LDL and total cholesterol. Elevated cholesterol levels don’t make you feel sick, so a blood test is the only way to determine if you have high cholesterol.

After you reach age 20, your cholesterol levels naturally begin to rise. In men, cholesterol levels generally level off after age 50. In women, cholesterol levels stay fairly low until menopause, after which they rise to about the same level as in men.

While, according to the Mayo Clinic, it is recommended that cholesterol levels be measured at least once every five years in everyone over age 20, at Warner Family Practice we prescribe checking levels more regularly for a greater level of preventative care. The usual cholesterol screening test is called a lipid profile. Experts recommend that men age 35 and older and women age 45 and older be more frequently screened for lipid disorders.

If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you are more likely to have high cholesterol. You may need to get your cholesterol levels checked more often than those who do not have a family history of high cholesterol.

What Do My Cholesterol Numbers Mean?

At Warner Family Practice, you will schedule two visits to check your cholesterol – one for a blood draw and a second to go over your results with a provider. During your provider appointment, you will be given several cholesterol numbers, including HDL, LDL and total cholesterol, as well as your triglycerides.

The total number is a composite of different types of cholesterol. Your total cholesterol number is calculated by adding the HDL and LDL cholesterol levels and 20 percent of the triglyceride level. Triglycerides are another type of fat in your bloodstream. Normal triglyceride levels vary by age and sex. People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including high LDL and low HDL cholesterol levels.

So, what are your optimal numbers? Your total cholesterol should be below 200 mg/dL. As mentioned earlier, your HDL should be 60 mg/dL and above. Your LDL should be below 100 mg/dL and your triglycerides should be below 100 mg/dL.

What Are Some Causes Of High Cholesterol?

As we mentioned above, cholesterol is carried through your blood attached to proteins. Factors impacting your overall cholesterol levels which are within your control include inactivity, obesity and a poor diet – all of which contribute to high LDL and low HDL cholesterol. Factors beyond your control may also play a role in high cholesterol. Your family genetics may play a role in preventing cells from removing LDL cholesterol from your blood efficiently or cause your liver to produce too much cholesterol.

Knowing your cholesterol levels helps your doctor determine your risk for having a heart attack or a stroke. However, it isn’t cholesterol alone that elevates risk. Your doctor uses your cholesterol levels plus other factors to calculate your risk: your blood pressure, whether or not you have diabetes, your age, sex, race and whether or not you smoke.

Lack of exercise is another cause of high cholesterol. Exercise helps boost your body’s HDL, or good cholesterol while increasing the size of the particles that make up your LDL, or bad cholesterol, making them less harmful.

Kids Can Have High Cholesterol Too

Adults are not the only people affected by high cholesterol. Your child may also have elevated cholesterol levels, which can result in health concerns when he or she gets older. Cholesterol levels in children are linked to three factors: heredity, diet and obesity. In most cases, kids with high cholesterol have a parent who also has elevated cholesterol.

The first treatment approach in children involves lifestyle changes that can benefit the whole family. You’ve heard them all before: lose weight, eat healthy foods and exercise more. In particular, avoid processed foods that contain large amounts of saturated fats and sugars. Be more active throughout the day and minimize the amount of time spent in front of computers, tablets, televisions and phones.

Here are some suggestions for a healthy diet for your whole family.

  • Breakfast: Fruit, cereal, oatmeal and yogurt are among the good choices for breakfast foods. Use skim or low-fat milk rather than whole or 2 percent milk.
  • Lunch and Dinner: Bake or grill foods instead of frying them. Use whole-grain breads and rolls to make a healthier sandwich. Give your child whole-grain crackers with soups, chili and stew. Prepare pasta, beans and rice with fish or skinless poultry. Always serve fresh fruit (leaving the skin on) with meals.
  • Snacks: Fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals make great snacks for children. Children should avoid soda and fruit drinks.

If you are interested in discovering more about making lifestyle changes for your family through activity and nutrition, please schedule a visit with one of our providers at Live Well Wellness Center. Together you can create an approach that not only helps improve your health now but creates a change in your family that will leave a legacy of health and wellness for generations to come.

Medication Can Help Lower Cholesterol

A healthy lifestyle is the first defense against high cholesterol. But sometimes diet and exercise aren’t enough, and you may need to take cholesterol medications. Your doctor may suggest a single drug or a combination of medications.

Most cholesterol medications lower cholesterol with few side effects, but effectiveness varies from person to person. If you decide to take cholesterol medication, your doctor may recommend periodic liver function tests to monitor the medication’s effect on your liver.

Remember the importance of healthy lifestyle choices. Medication can help control your cholesterol, but lifestyle matters, too.

Take The First Step To Find Out If You Have High Cholesterol Now

A qualified healthcare provider, such as those at our Chandler family practice, will guide you through every step necessary to take control of your high cholesterol, bring your numbers down to a normal level and create a plan for maintaining low cholesterol in the future.

If you are in the Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, Phoenix or Gilbert area of Arizona, we encourage you to schedule a visit with one of our providers. You can call 480.831.8457 to speak with our scheduling department.

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