Cholesterol can be good for you.
Yes, you read that right.
You’ve probably heard about how a high level of cholesterol in the body can cause blood vessel blockage, stroke, and other deadly medical conditions. That’s correct. But did you know that it can also help to protect your health?
Keep reading to find out.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found in all cells of the body. It is necessary for the production of hormones, vitamin D, and digestive juices. A healthy liver would generally produce enough of the fatty substance for the body to use. However, we get extra cholesterol through our diet from foods like meat, poultry, and dairy products.
There are different substances commonly lumped under the umbrella name ‘cholesterol’: LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. But in reality, they are not exactly cholesterol, although they are closely related. Each of these ‘cholesterols’ has different roles in the body.
HDL vs LDL
HDL is an acronym for high-density lipoprotein, commonly referred to as ‘good cholesterol’, while LDL is low-density lipoprotein, also called ‘bad cholesterol’. HDL and LDL are substances in the blood that belongs to a family of proteins called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are made up of lipo (fats) and proteins. Their function is to transport cholesterol around the body.
This lipoprotein carries cholesterol to the arteries, where it may accumulate on the arterial walls, causing them to narrow, stiffen and form plaques called atherosclerosis. The formation of plaques increases the risk of blood clots which may further narrow or completely block blood flow through the vessel.
Sometimes, the clots or plaques may break off and travel to distant organs to cause blockage there and cause life-threatening events like stroke, heart attack, or pulmonary embolism (a lung disease). A high level of LDL is bad for health; this is why it is called ‘bad cholesterol’.
This is the ‘good cholesterol’ because it carries cholesterol from the body to the liver. The liver then breakdowns and excrete the cholesterol. HDL helps rid your body of excess cholesterol, making it less likely to end up in your arteries. High levels of HDL in the body is beneficial to health.
Symptoms of abnormal LDL or HDL
A high level of cholesterol in the body usually produces no symptoms. The only way to tell is to do a blood test called ‘fasting lipid profile’. As the name implies, you have to fast for 9-12 hours before the test. For this reason, it is usually done first thing in the morning.
What are the normal HDL and LDL values?
HDL values should be at least 50 mg/dL for women and 40 mg/dL or more for men. The higher the HDL cholesterol numbers, the lower the risk is for heart disease, vascular disease, and stroke.
For LDL, the lower the value, the better. According to the National Library of Medicine, LDL should be no more than 100 mg/dL for optimal health.
What causes high LDL?
- High-fat diet
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Genetics. Some people have a condition called ‘familial hypercholesterolemia’; where high cholesterol runs in families.
- Liver disease
- Smoking has been linked to high LDL
How to lower (bad) cholesterol
Lifestyle and dietary changes are the major ways to reduce LDL. They include:
- Stopping smoking
- Eating a healthy diet, preferably a low-fat/high-fiber diet
- Exercising regularly
- Reduction in alcohol intake
- Maintaining a healthy weight
Sometimes, lifestyle modifications may not be sufficient to reduce LDL. Medications are prescribed in such cases, some of which include:
- Statins (e.g. atorvastatin, fluvastatin). These help the liver get rid of cholesterol.
- Bile-acid-binding medications (e.g., cholestyramine, colestipol). They help the body use extra cholesterol to produce bile.
- Cholesterol absorption inhibitors (e.g., ezetimibe) prevent the small intestines from absorbing and releasing cholesterol into the bloodstream.
How to improve good cholesterol
The best way is to maintain lifestyle practices that lower LDL. Sometimes your doctor may prescribe medications like statins (e.g., atorvastatin, pravastatin) to help boost your HDL levels.
A word from Healthfacts
Your body needs enough good cholesterol for sound health. Your diet and lifestyle choices are essential to having an adequate cholesterol balance.