What is cholesterol
It is not surprising to hear that cholesterol levels are important to understand risk for heart disease and stroke. However, few understand the cholesterol and lipid profile test itself. Blood testing typically involves 4 components: Total Cholesterol, High Density Lipoproteins (HDL), Low Density Lipoproteins, (LDL) and Triglycerides. Knowing a cholesterol result as “high” or “low” is just the beginning. In the next few paragraphs, the additional details are explained.
Cholesterol is a fat. According to US National Library of Science and National Institutes of Health, cholesterol is a “soft, wax like substance” and cannot be dissolved in the blood. Lipoproteins (like HDL or LDL) are needed to move it around the body. Cholesterol is necessary for health and is found throughout the body. There are many factors that may influence cholesterol: activity level, smoking, gender, illness, prescription drugs, and diet.
Total Cholesterol measures all the cholesterol in the blood. This test provides an overall understanding, however without further details it may be difficult to know what action to take. If the HDL or LDL are high, the Total Cholesterol level will be impacted. Getting to the heart of the matter is found with the HDL and LDL levels.
What is HDL cholesterol
High Density Lipoproteins are often referred to as the “Good Cholesterol”. It is helpful to think of HDL as tiny, powerful scavengers in the blood. These scavengers circulate through the body grabbing onto cholesterol. Once the HDL has a hold of the cholesterol, it is taken to the liver for processing. HDL also works to repair damage to the inside of blood vessels (where hardening would occur). It is very favorable to have a high level of High Density Lipoproteins!
What is LDL cholesterol
Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) are the opposite of their HDL colleagues and are known as the “Bad Cholesterol”. If HDL are the powerful scavengers, consider LDL the lazy litterbugs. These litterbugs carry cholesterol but drop it onto the walls of blood vessels. When this happens, the immune system springs into action. White blood cells try to eat away the cholesterol and cause inflammation in the process. With all this activity, more cholesterol is deposited, more cells get involved, and eventually a firm plate, known as plaque begins to form. Blood vessels function at their best when they are flexible and healthy, not crusted with plaque and inflamed.
What are triglycerides
Triglycerides are the building blocks of fat. When a person eats fat, the body digests it to triglycerides where it is then either converted to energy or stored. Eating excess carbohydrates will also be converted to triglycerides and stored in the body as fat. Like cholesterol, triglycerides are transported in the body by a lipoprotein, the Very Low Density Lipoprotein.
The following information in Table 1, as described by the Mayo Clinic, offers a quick reference to the cholesterol and lipid panel levels.
Depending on your overall health, cardiac risk assessment, and desired cholesterol ratio, your values may be different. Make certain to work with your healthcare professional to determine a complete wellness profile specific to your situation.
The recommendations to improve cholesterol typically starts with lifestyle. Being more physically active, eating food low in saturated fat, limiting or eliminating smoking and alcohol consumption may all have positive effects on cholesterol levels. However, some factors such as genetics, gender, age, illness, and prescription medications may be beyond ones ability to alter cholesterol levels. Again, as offered by the Mayo Clinic, if medications are needed to assist in supporting a preferred result, Table 2 summarizes some options to consider.
Never take another persons prescription medication in an effort to treat yourself, and consult your healthcare professional before starting supplements in an effort to adjust your cholesterol. As with all medications and supplements, side effects may be expected.
An educated patient is often appreciated by the healthcare professional. Be knowledgeable about cholesterol and lipid panel testing; be prepared to understand results and the plan of care. By being active in care, the patient can be a valuable member of the healthcare team.
To read more about cholesterol and lipid testing, the following are suggested resources:
US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (MedLine)
This article is for information only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by a qualified health care provider.