Cholesterol 101

Cholesterol 101

We hear the term “healthy cholesterol levels” often, yet many of us don’t actually know what it means. Contrary to the common belief that all cholesterol should be avoided, our bodies actually need cholesterol to stay healthy. The problem is that too much cholesterol in the blood can lead to cardiovascular disease. Not only does high cholesterol affect your heart health, it has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that travels through our blood stream to maintain cell membranes and create hormones. It is transported from cell to cell by lipoproteins, which include high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or the so-called "good" cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which has been labeled "bad" cholesterol. When people refer to healthy cholesterol levels, they are referring to a healthy balance of HDL and LDL in your system. Both types of cholesterol are interconnected and work together to keep you healthy.

Along with HDL and LDL, triglycerides can also affect your heart health if not regulated correctly. Triglycerides are a natural fatty substance that provides much of the energy needed for your tissues to function. High levels of triglycerides are a known cause of heart disease and stroke, adding to the need for healthy cholesterol levels.

Our bodies produce cholesterol naturally, which is why genetics and family history can affect how you maintain healthy cholesterol levels. But we can also control our cholesterol levels by eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke.

HDL "Good" Cholesterol

A healthy level of HDL, which is approximately one-fourth to one-third of total cholesterol, can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. On the other hand, if your HDL levels are too low, you increase these risks. HDL is thought to move cholesterol out of the arteries, where it can form artery-clogging deposits, and into the liver for elimination. That's why it's called the good cholesterol. It's also thought that HDL may remove excess cholesterol from plaque that's already formed.

LDL "Bad" Cholesterol

When too much LDL circulates in the blood, it can gradually build up in the arteries that keep the blood flowing to your heart and brain. When LDL combines with other substances it can form hard deposits that narrow and stiffen the arteries to create a condition called atherosclerosis. A heart attack or stroke can result if a clot forms in a narrow artery and blocks the blood flow.


High triglyceride levels tell us that too much of a certain form of fat made in the body is present. A high total cholesterol level – with too much LDL (bad) cholesterol and too little HDL (good) cholesterol – often goes along with elevated triglycerides. What causes high triglycerides? Being overweight, smoking, physical inactivity, drinking too much alcohol and eating a very high-carbohydrate diet have been shown to increase the levels.

Managing High Cholesterol

If your doctor has told you that you have high cholesterol and your HDL levels are too low, regular exercise and diet have been proven to help you regain healthy cholesterol levels. Making changes to your diet is often the first step. For example, it's important to know which fats raise LDL levels, such as trans-fats commonly found in processed foods. Low-saturated fat is recommended for promoting healthy cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, diet and exercise alone don’t always work and many people are turning to supplementation as an all natural alternative to prescription drugs.

Niacin is a B vitamin that has long been used to increase levels of good cholesterol by helping your body convert cholesterol to energy. Though your body produces niacin, it doesn’t produce nearly enough to effectively increase low HDL, which is why higher doses of it are usually found in a multivitamin or in a prescription prescribed by your doctor.

Adding beta-sitosterol into your diet can also complement healthy eating and exercise. Beta-sitosterol is a compound called phytosterol that is found in foods like flax seed and wheat germ. When consumed as part of your daily diet, it helps to stop the absorption of cholesterol into your blood stream from the foods you eat, effectively reducing your LDL levels over time.

Though the risks of high cholesterol should be taken seriously, cholesterol doesn’t have to be scary. Work with your health care provider to establish a plan for achieving and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, and be flexible. Managing your cholesterol levels can improve your heart health and may prevent other health problems.

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