During the last few decades, high cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolemia, has increasingly become more prevalent, particularly in industrialized countries. This manifests itself as a high overall cholesterol level (above 240 mg/dL is considered alarmingly high). A dL is 1/10th of a liter or a little more than 1/3 cup.
We hear a lot about cholesterol in advertisements and television with products proclaiming “no cholesterol” but I doubt most people are aware of exactly what cholesterol is and how it affects our health.
Let me make clear, cholesterol is NOT a bad thing. In fact, cholesterol is an important compound in our body and too low blood levels is also unhealthy. It is a class of compounds that are a combination of fat and hormones (lipid and steroids) that are used in our body to manufacture hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. They are often described as waxy. We could not survive without cholesterol. It is the excess of cholesterol, particularly of the wrong kind that we need to concern ourselves with.
Contrary to what advertising seems to suggest, cutting cholesterol completely out of our diets doesn’t work to cut down blood levels because our liver manufactures 80% of our blood cholesterol and only 20% is from our diet. If we cut consumption too low, our liver will just get busy and make more.
Total cholesterol is the sum of LDL (low density) cholesterol, HDL (high density) cholesterol, VLDL (very low density) cholesterol, and IDL (intermediate density) cholesterol. It is the sum of tese that should not go over 240 mg/dL.
Aside from total cholesterol over 240 mg/dL as being dangerous, we can also have dangerous cholesterol levels if we have too much of the “bad” cholesterol relative to the “good” cholesterol in our blood, which are also known as LDL and HDL.
What is LDL Cholesterol
Low density lipoproteins (LDL) is also called “bad” cholesterol because elevated levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. LDL deposits on the walls of arteries causing the formation of a hard, thick substance called cholesterol plaque, leading to atherosclerosis and high blood pressure.
High density lipoproteins (HDL), is also called “good” cholesterol, because HDL cholesterol particles prevent atherosclerosis by extracting cholesterol from the artery walls and disposing of them through the liver.
So, high levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol (high LDL/HDL ratios) are unhealthy and put you at risk for heart disease. While the converse, while low levels of LDL cholesterol and high level of HDL cholesterol (low LDL/HDL ratios) will improve your health. The optimal ratio of the two is
There are other types of fat or fatty acids that are found in the blood, including VLDL and Triglycerides. Fatty acids make up fat much like amino acids make up protein. You’ve heard of fatty acids, these are omega-3 and omega-6, the essential fats we need for survival.
Further fat found in the blood stream includes: VLDL (very low density lipoproteins) is similar to LDL cholesterol in that it contains mostly fat and not much protein. Triglycerides, which as the name suggests, is a molecule made up of three fatty acids, are another type of fat that is carried in the blood by very low density lipoproteins. Excess calories, alcohol, or sugar in the body are converted into triglycerides in the liver and stored in fat cells throughout the body.
The major health risk caused by excess cholesterol is mainly related to the circulatory system, where the build up of plaque narrows the blood vessels and stiffens them. This leads to high blood pressure, which can cause a stroke. It can also reduce the level of oxygen-carrying blood that reaches the heart, the heart is affected, often causing chest pain called angina can be the result. If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by total blockage of a coronary artery, the result is a heart attack. This is usually due to a sudden closure from a blood clot forming on top of a previous narrowing.
For total cholesterol, as mentioned above, 240 mg/dL is the danger level but less than 200 mg/dl is optimal, For LDL, 160 mg/dL is the danger level but less than 100 mg/dl is optimal. Finally, a healthy HDL cholesterol level is set above 60 mg/dl, and should be kept above 40 mg/dl for men and above 50 mg/dl for women to prevent excessive LDL accumulation in the blood and along the artery walls. The optimal total to HDL ratio is 3.3 to 1 or less while the optimal LDL to HDL ratio is 1.7 to one or less.
Have you had your cholesterol checked lately?
Other resources on this website explain how to lower cholesterol by diet and lifestyle changes.