If you’re under 45 or haven’t known someone affected by heart disease, chances are pretty high that understanding more about cholesterol is probably not top of mind for you. And yet, knowing more about Cholesterol, what your values are and what they mean could help you live a lot longer and be healthier. 

Cholesterol is Essential for Your Health

That’s right! Cholesterol is important and an essential component of the membranes that encircle all of the cells in our bodies.  It’s also one of the building blocks for many of our hormones including cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone.  Our brains love cholesterol, in fact, there’s more cholesterol in our brains than anywhere else.

Cholesterol is found in animal products, such as butter, milk, cream, cheese, egg yolks, and meat. We used to think that eliminating all animal products from a person’s diet would automatically result in a lowered cholesterol, however that’s not the case. 

Because cholesterol is so important for the optimal functioning of our brains and bodies, our bodies will actually make cholesterol, even if a person is a vegetarian and has no animal products that contain cholesterol.  That’s why many people who eat no animal products are shocked at their cholesterol levels. 

When too much cholesterol in the blood is dangerous

Just like Gold-i-locks, with cholesterol, you don’t want too much, or too little, you want it to be Just Right! When it comes to our blood vessels, especially the teeny tiny coronary arteries that bring blood to the muscles of the heart, we don’t want to clog them up with waxy cholesterol. This is known as atherosclerosis.  Here’s an illustration of what atherosclerosis looks like in blood vessels. 

When the amount of atherosclerosis is severe, the vessels can become partially blocked. Anything that causes those blood vessels to constrict and get smaller, such as high blood pressure or smoking can lead to loss of blood flow to the heart, chest pain, known as angina and in many cases a heart attack.

The American Heart Association has this slide show that dives deeper into how cholesterol is formed and what it does. 

Know Your Numbers

Cholesterol is a type of fat in our bodies. It’s also known as a lipid, blood lipid or lipoprotein. 

There are different types of cholesterol:

HDL –  High Density Lipoprotein – This is known as the “Good” or healthy cholesterol. It is protective against the build-up of atherosclerosis and helps remove the LDL from the bloodstream. One way to increase HDL is to exercise more and to stop smoking.  

Ideally, an HDL  > 40 is considered healthy for men. For women, an HDL > 50 is considered healthy. If a person has an HDL > 60 they have a much lower risk of heart disease. 

LDL – Low Density Lipoprotein – This is known as the “Bad” cholesterol because when these levels are high, then atherosclerosis is more likely. 

Ideally, your LDL should be < 100.

If you have a history of heart disease, then your LDL should be < 70.

VLDL – Very Low Density Lipoprotein – This is a sub-type of LDL and is also more likely to cause atherosclerosis. Ideally, your VLDL should be <30.

What about Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are what the body makes from excess blood glucose that occurs when we either eat too many carbs or have insulin resistance and/or diabetes. Triglycerides are a building block for LDL cholesterol.  

Ideally, your Triglycerides should be < 150.

I hope that this helps with more understanding of cholesterol and why understanding your numbers is so important. 

Check out my post next week: What to Eat to Lower Your Cholesterol

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