While most of us know that having high cholesterol doesn’t necessarily boost heart health, is it really as bad as it sounds? Truth be told, cholesterol isn’t simply good or bad, it’s somewhere in between. In fact, cholesterol is actually essential for your body – in healthy doses. It’s used to build and maintain cells and hormones, like estrogen, steroids and vitamin D, as well as supporting digestion.
Cholesterol – or the fatty substance found in your cells – is divided up into two different types: HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Here’s what you need to know about both:
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in blood cells throughout the body. Also known as a lipid, cholesterol is the main type of fat found in your blood and body tissues, as well as triglycerides.
When there are high amounts of lipids, including both triglycerides and cholesterol, this can lead to fat deposits or plaque build-up in your arteries. Overtime, this causes the arteries to narrow, which increases blood pressure, as well as risk for blood clots and heart disease.
While both types of cholesterol are essentially the same, there is one key way in which they differ – where they go within the body.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein): Also known as the good type of cholesterol, HDL helps to carry cholesterol to your liver. As a digestive powerhouse, the liver processes excess cholesterol to be removed from the body.
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein): Also known as the bad type of cholesterol, LDL carries cholesterol to the arteries. Rather than being removed from the body, excess cholesterol collects along the walls of arteries causing build-up.
As an essential building block for cells, your body actually creates all the cholesterol it needs to function. However, most people get high amounts of cholesterol from external sources, like diet. The primary causes of high cholesterol include:
- High-fat foods: red meat and full-fat dairy products
- Lack of exercise: regular exercise helps to lower cholesterol
- Excess weight: extra pounds increase cholesterol levels
- Underlying health conditions: diabetes and thyroid conditions can impact levels
Oftentimes, high cholesterol won’t cause any noticeable symptoms. That means the only way to really know if your levels are high is to work with your doctor to have them checked. A cholesterol test is an easy blood test that can check your HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels.
When you have a cholesterol test done, also known as a lipid panel, the ideal levels or measurements are:
- HDL: Above 55 mg/dL for women | Above 45 mg/dL for men
- LDL: Below 130 mg/dL
- Triglycerides: Below 150 mg/dL
There are many lifestyle factors that can impact your cholesterol levels. To prevent or lower cholesterol levels, make sure to get routine exercise and eat heart-healthy foods, such as fresh produce, whole grains and lean meats (e.g., chicken and fish).
If you have high cholesterol, it may be time to make an appointment with a cardiologist, especially if you have a family history of heart disease. The best way to prevent and treat high cholesterol is to work with a trusted cardiologist that understands your unique heart health.