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Cholesterol Explainer

August 31, 2020 Posted in: Heart Health

Cholesterol is one of the building blocks of human cells – it occurs naturally in the body and is present in certain food products like meat and dairy. Not only is it essential for human tissues, it also aids in the production of sex hormones and fosters bile production in the liver. Cholesterol isn’t all bad, but if cholesterol levels are elevated, it could lead to coronary artery disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, Type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.

There are two types of cholesterol – HDL and LDL. HDL stands for high-density lipoproteins. We commonly call HDL your “healthy cholesterol.” HDL helps to remove other forms of cholesterol from your blood and takes it back to the liver where it is ultimately broken down and removed from your body. Having high levels of HDL helps lower your risk of heart attack and other health problems. The National Institutes of Health report that HDL levels of 60 mg/dL and higher may help keep your cardiovascular system healthy. But lower levels of HLD (think under 40 mg/dL) put you at increased risk for heart disease.

LDL stands for low-density lipoproteins, and we often refer to this as “bad cholesterol.” High levels of LDL can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. This is the cholesterol you want to keep low – ideally less than 100 mg/dL. Triglycerides are a fat-like substance that can be found in the blood and can be used to give your body energy. These are commonly found in foods like butter or oil. Excess calories in the body can be turned into triglycerides and stored in fat cells around the body for later use.    

When it comes to cholesterol, men and women aren’t the same. According to the Centers for Disease Control, men tend to have higher LDL and lower HDL cholesterol levels than women do. However, after menopause, total and LDL cholesterol increase, while HDL decreases in women. This has to do with female sex hormones that can impact cholesterol levels.

Many people incorrectly believe that in order to have high blood pressure or high cholesterol you must be overweight. The reality is that you don’t have to be overweight to have high cholesterol. In fact, the risks for high cholesterol include family history of heart disease or high blood cholesterol, diabetes, older age, male gender, and previously having high cholesterol. Being overweight or obese is also a risk factor, but it is not uncommon to have elevated cholesterol in a patient who is not overweight.  

Why is it important to have your cholesterol checked? Simply put, lower cholesterol levels help reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, Type 2 diabetes, and hypertension, all conditions that can hinder your quality of life and lead to premature death. The CDC recommends checking cholesterol once between ages 9 and 11, once between ages 12 and 21, and every 4 to 6 years in adulthood. However, based on your family history or personal medical history, your physician may choose to check this more often.

Several factors come into play when aiming to lower LDL numbers or boost HDLs. In addition to cholesterol lowering medications, choosing foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fats, managing your weight and getting regular exercise are all part of keeping cholesterol levels in check and minimizing your risks for cardiovascular disease.

Chelsea Ryan, MD
Chelsea Ryan, MD

Dr. Ryan is a primary care physician at CHI Memorial Integrative Medicine Associates - Signal Mountain. Call (423) 886-2004 to schedule an appointment.

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