People view cholesterol as being the villain of our diets. However, it is more important than most people realize. Cholesterol Is vital for the formation of our cell membranes, hormone synthesis, and even making vitamin D. It is a member of the lipid (fat) family. Cholesterol, like other fats, is hydrophobic. This means that it does not dissolve in water. Since it does not dissolve in water, it is unable to travel throughout our body without help. Our liver produces compounds called lipoproteins. Cholesterol moves throughout our body while inside the lipoproteins. Our livers can produce cholesterol or we can digest it within our diets. Cholesterol is only digested from animal products.
Lipoproteins are molecules formed by fats and proteins. Their role is to carry cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of fat) within our bloodstream. There are two main types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDL Cholesterol, or Bad Cholesterol
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often referred to as bad cholesterol. This is because it carries cholesterol to our arteries. If your LDL cholesterol levels are too high, it will build up on the walls of our arteries. It forms a substance called plaque. The plaque reduces the size of our arteries, limiting our blood flow and increasing our blood pressure. Additionally, the plaque can break off the walls of the arteries as a blood clot. If it ends up blocking an artery in your heart or your brain you can have a heart attack or stroke.
HDL Cholesterol, or Good Cholesterol
High density lipoprotein (HDL) is also known as good cholesterol. This is because it helps return LDL cholesterol to your liver where it is removed from the body. Therefore, it directly helps prevent cholesterol plaque from building up in your arteries. Thus, healthy levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk of blood clots, heart disease, and strokes.
Similar to cholesterol, triglycerides are another type of lipid. However, your body uses cholesterol to build cells and hormones, whereas it uses triglycerides as a source of energy. When you eat more more calories than your body can use right away, it converts the excess calories into triglycerides and stores them in fat cells. Similar to cholesterol, lipoproteins transport triglycerides throughout our body. If your regularly overeat, your triglyceride levels can get high. This can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
What are the normal levels of Cholesterol?
You can’t completely eliminate cholesterol from your body. You need both LDL and HDL cholesterol in order to function properly. However, when your LDL levels get too high you will increase your risk of serious health problems. The normal levels of cholesterol vary based on your age and gender. An article in the journal of the American college of cardiology highlighted the acceptable, borderline, and high measurements for adults1.
|Total Cholesterol||HDL Cholesterol||LDL Cholesterol||Triglycerides|
|Good||Less than 200 (the lower the better)||Ideal is 60 or higher; 40 or higher for men and 50 or higher for women||less than 100; below 70 if coronary artery disease is present||less than 149; ideal is <100|
|Borderline to moderately elevated||200-239||n/a||130-159||150-199|
|High||240 or higher||60 or higher||160 or higher; 190 considered very high||200 or higher; 500 considered very high|
|Low||n/a||less than 40||n/a||n/a|
High Cholesterol Symptoms
High cholesterol is a silent problem. This means that there are almost no symptoms for it. In most cases it only causes extreme events such as heart attack or strokes. This is why you should ensure you are testing your cholesterol levels every 4 to 6 years after you turn 20 years old2.
Causes of High Cholesterol
Our diet and lifestyle directly impacts our cholesterol levels. Foods that are high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats increase your risk of developing high cholesterol. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as activity level and smoking can influence cholesterol levels. Finally, your genetics can influence your chances at developing high cholesterol levels. Certain genes tell our body how to process cholesterol and fats. If your parents had high cholesterol, you are at risk for it too.
Complications of High Cholesterol
High cholesterol puts a lot of stress on our blood stream, If left untreated, plaque will build up in the arteries. This plaque can narrow the arteries, causing a condition known as atherosclerosis. This condition leads to many life threatening complications, such as:
- Heart attack
- Angina or severe chest pain
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
How to Lower Cholesterol
The good news about high cholesterol levels is that simple diet and lifestyle changes can help you control it. Your doctor might advise you to limit your intakes of foods like red meat, egg yolks, and high fat dairy products which are high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats. Additionally, they might suggest you limit your intake of deep fried foods, and baked goods which can increase your cholesterol levels. Choosing lean sources of protein such as chicken, fish, and legumes can help limit your cholesterol intake.
In some cases, you may be able to lower your cholesterol levels with the help of herbal and nutritional supplements. The following foods have been suggested to lower your cholesterol levels:
- Red yeast rice
- Plant sterol and stanol supplements
- Oat bran, commonly found in oatmeal
- Ground flax seed
You have no control over your genetic factors towards high cholesterol. However, simple lifestyle changes can help you manage it. Eating a nutritious diet that is low in animal fats and high in fiber, avoid excessive alcohol consumption, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke are all simple ways to manage your cholesterol levels.
High cholesterol levels can cause extreme health events, which make it viewed very negatively. However, Cholesterol is a necessary building block for our cell walls and hormone production. it is hydrophobic, meaning it can not dissolve in water. Therefore, it needs to be transported throughout our body with the assistance of lipoproteins.
LDL Cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol, is carried to our arteries. HDL cholesterol, also known as good cholesterol, helps remove LDL cholesterol from our bodies. Our liver can produce cholesterol for our body. Additionally, we can consume cholesterol from our diet, mainly from animal products.
To lower your cholesterol you should look at making lifestyle or dietary changes. Firstly, you can eat less red meat and more lean sources of protein like fish and lentils. Secondly, you can eat less fried foods and baked goods. Finally, you can exercise more regularly.
- Grundy SM, Stone NJ, Bailey AL, et al. 2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA Guideline on the Management of Blood Cholesterol: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 2019;139(25). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000625
- CDC. Getting Your Cholesterol Checked. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 8, 2020. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/cholesterol_screening.htm#:~:text=Who%20Needs%20to%20Get%20Their,their%20cholesterol%20checked%20more%20often.