Understanding how cholesterol affects our health can be confusing. We see commercials, news stories and blog posts telling us what’s good and what’s bad for our health, but it tends to change regularly. What exactly is cholesterol and what does it do to our health?
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is produced naturally in the body and is found in the foods we eat. The liver creates the cholesterol we need and sends it into the bloodstream to circulate throughout the body. Cholesterol is consumed by eating animal products such as meat, poultry and dairy. The liver produces more cholesterol when a person’s diet is high in both saturated and trans saturated fat.
Extra cholesterol forms plaque in the artery walls, which makes it difficult for the heart to circulate blood through the body. Plaque is a hard, thick deposit that causes arteries to become less flexible and potentially clogged. If the plaque breaks open, it can result in blood clots. If a clot obstructs an artery that sends blood to the brain, a stroke could happen. If the clogged artery leads to the heart, a heart attack could occur.
Types of Cholesterol
There are two different types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL. Having too much of one type of cholesterol, or not enough of another, can put you at risk for various health conditions such as stroke, coronary heart disease or a heart attack.
HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because it removes the bad cholesterol (LDL) from the arteries. Healthy levels of HDL can protect against heart attack and stroke. A sedentary lifestyle, smoking and being overweight can lower HDL levels.
LDL cholesterol is know as “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries. Because LDL cholesterol builds up in the artery walls, it can make them hard and narrow. If there is plaque build up, a stroke or heart attack could occur. Another condition known as peripheral artery disease can occur when arteries are narrowed from plaque build up, which affects blood supply to the limbs.
Understanding Cholesterol Levels
Healthy cholesterol levels keep the heart healthy, which lowers the risk of having a stroke or developing heart disease. A measuring test will show levels of cholesterol in milligrams per deciliter of blood. The current recommendation is that adults age 20 and older should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years.
- Total blood cholesterol. This test measures the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, including both LDL and HDL levels. The optimal total cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL. If total cholesterol levels are above 240 mg/dL, levels are too high.
- HDL cholesterol. The higher the levels of HDL cholesterol, the better. A person with less than 40 mg/dL of HDL is at major risk of developing heart disease. 60 mg/dL and above is considered healthy and protected against the development of heart disease.
- LDL cholesterol. Low levels of LDL cholesterol are considered beneficial to your health. Optimal levels of LDL cholesterol should be below 100 mg/dL. High levels of LDL cholesterol range between 160-189 mg/dL and levels at 190 mg/dL or above are very high.
- Triglycerides. Triglycerides are another type of fat found in the body. Low levels of HDL and high levels of LDL cholesterol mixed with a high triglyceride level can contribute to fatty buildup in the arteries, which leads to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
Factors That Affect Cholesterol Levels
Problems with cholesterol generally don’t happen overnight. There are a variety of factors that contribute to cholesterol levels:
- Poor diet. A diet high in saturated fat can contribute to rising blood cholesterol levels.
- Weight. Being overweight is a known risk factor for heart disease, but it also can cause cholesterol levels to rise.
- Physical activity. Physical inactivity increases the risk of developing heart disease and high levels of LDL cholesterol.
What Happens When Blood Cholesterol is High?
As mentioned above, developing high levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood can put you at risk for various conditions. However, several treatment options are available to help lower cholesterol levels.
Medication can be used as a supplement to lifestyle changes and several medication options are available. Lifestyle changes, such as a new diet, becoming more physically active and maintaining a healthy weight, can all help lower LDL cholesterol levels and raise HDL cholesterol levels.
When to Call a Doctor
It is likely that a person with high cholesterol will not experience any symptoms. High cholesterol may go unnoticed until the development of heart disease or conditions associated with heart disease. If high cholesterol goes untreated, a heart attack could occur. Symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, discomfort in the upper body, shortness of breath, nausea or lightheadedness. If you experience any of the symptoms above and think it could be a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
UnityPoint Clinic Cares About Your Health
Whether you’re just getting an annual check-up or you believe you’re at risk for heart disease, UnityPoint Clinic wants to help you develop a healthy lifestyle. Make an appointment today at any of our convenient clinic locations or find a doctor that fits your needs.