The health and quality-of-life benefits of focusing on lower cholesterol levels need to be reinforced. In the USA more than 100 million people of the 300 million population have total blood cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL putting them at considerable risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact 800,000 deaths annually in the USA are attributed to the consequences of vascular diseases.
Cholesterol plays an important role in our body in maintaining our state of health. But like many things in life too much can be a bad thing. So it’s really all about balance. The maintenance of our cell membranes, synthesis of Vitamin D, production of hormones, digestion and assimilation of what we eat, and our abilities to learn and remember all depend on cholesterol.
There are only two sources of cholesterol. It is manufactured in our liver, and also consumed within the foods we eat principally from animal and dairy products. If our body has too much of it the excess circulates in our blood and can begin to obstruct our blood vessels. Cholesterol is such an important substance to the body that even if you decide to eat foods that have no cholesterol your liver will still make cholesterol from the break down of the protein, carbohydrate and fat that you do consume. In general the liver manufactures around 75% of your total cholesterol levels, and the remainder comes from your diet.
Cholesterol is a fat soluble lipid (or fatty substance) which cannot dissolve in water or blood. It needs to combine with protein, which wraps around it, in order to be able to travel around the body, and therefore it is called a lipoprotein. There are two types of cholesterol known as HDL (high density lipoprotein) and LDL (low density lipoprotein). HDL typically has more protein than lipid and makes its way to the liver where it is converted into acids to help with our digestion. LDL typically has more lipid than protein and moves slowly through the bloodstream often leaving deposits behind which form a buildup of plaque in the blood vessels. LDL is known as the bad cholesterol and HDL the good cholesterol. HDL can even remove some of the LDL that has built up in the blood vessels. So an abundance of HDL contributes to your health.
In assessing cholesterol levels both the total amount of cholesterol and the ratio of HDL to LDL are important measurements. Typically when measured from a blood sample your total cholesterol level will include HDL, LDL as well as triglycerides and Lp-a (lipoprotein a) which also make up your total lipids. Lp-a is an LDL-like substance, and triglycerides are lipids either produced by your body or from animal fats and vegetable oils (particularly from consumption of trans fats and saturated fats). I will not describe these other two lipids any further in this article.
Your goal should be to have total cholesterol levels of less than 200 mg/dL which is considered normal. An HDL level of at least 60 mg/dL is considered to be good, and your LDL level should ideally be less than 100mg/dL. You can also use various cholesterol ratios as a guideline. Although in determining what to focus on to improve and lower cholesterol levels, using the totals of the various cholesterol measurements is considered to be better.
Some people may have a particular genetic predisposition or other systemic problem concerning the production and balance of cholesterol, and may need medication to assist with managing their cholesterol levels. However this is a small minority of the population. For most people high cholesterol levels is considered to be a preventable and controllable situation. The main way to do this is with simple lifestyle changes that include diet and exercise.
With the right knowledge and habits you can effectively lower cholesterol levels through increasing your HDL levels and decreasing your LDL levels to maintain a healthy balance and minimize your risk of vascular disease including heart attack and stroke.