In order for the body to function properly, it requires a certain amount of cholesterol. This fat-like substance is needed in the body to produce bile acids that help to digest fat. The body also uses cholesterol to produce vitamin D and hormones as well as to insulate the nerves. The body normally produces an adequate amount of cholesterol for its required functions. Foods such as eggs, meat and dairy products also contain cholesterol. When the body receives too much of this substance, health problems can develop. Too much cholesterol can cause plaque to build-up on the walls of the arteries causing a decrease in blood flow. If the plaque build-up continues, this can cause heart disease or a heart attack.
Different Types of Cholesterol- Cholesterol moves through the bloodstream by attaching itself to a protein. These cholesterol-protein cells are called lipoproteins. There are three different classifications of these lipoproteins, depending on the density of fat and protein that make up the lipoprotein. They are classified as:
1. Low density lipoproteins (LDL), which is the bad cholesterol that can build-up on artery walls. The higher the level of LDL, the greater the risks become for heart disease.
2 .High density lipoproteins (HDL), which are the good cholesterol. These lipoproteins help rid the body of dangerous cholesterol. When these levels are high they reduce the chance of heart disease, but when they become too low the chances for heart disease increase.
3. Very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) are like LDL cholesterol, which do not have much protein, but contain mostly fat.
Triglycerides are a different kind of fat that is carried through the blood by attaching to very low-density lipoproteins. When excess amounts of sugar, alcohol or calories are consumed, they are changed into triglycerides and stored in the fat cells in the body.
Many Factors Can Affect Cholesterol Levels- There is a wide variety of different factors that can cause cholesterol levels to be too high or too low. Diets rich in cholesterol foods and saturated fats can increase cholesterol levels. Being overweight also can raise cholesterol. As people age, their cholesterol levels tend to rise. Increases in cholesterol usually occur in women after menopause. Diabetes that is not properly controlled can also cause cholesterol levels to rise. There are also certain medications that can affect cholesterol levels as well as some medical conditions. Lastly, genes are partly responsible for how the body makes cholesterol.
Cholesterol Testing- Many people have high cholesterol and are unaware of this because there are no symptoms associated with it. Having cholesterol testing done on a regular bases should be part of an individual’s health regimen. This can help prevent heart disease, or if an individual already has heart disease, can help prevent a heart attack. Two different tests are done to check cholesterol levels. One test requires the individual to fast before the test. This is called a lipid profile or lipid test, which measures all the different cholesterol levels as well as triglyceride levels. A non-fasting cholesterol test does not require fasting and only measures beneficial and total cholesterol. Doctors usually start with this test and if levels are high will require a fasting test as well. It is recommended that everyone over 20 have a cholesterol test every five years with more frequent testing as individuals age.
Cholesterol Levels- Low density lipoproteins or bad cholesterol levels should be less than 100. When they reach 100 to 129, they are considered optimal. Over 130, but lower than 159 is considered borderline. When LDL levels reach over 190 they are considered very high.
High density lipoproteins or good cholesterol levels should be 60 or above, which helps to lower the chance of heart disease. When they become 50 or less in women or 40 or less in men, they are considered low and can raise the risks of heart disease.
Total Cholesterol levels are a measure of HDL, LDL and other lipids. Total Cholesterol levels should be below 200. When they reach 239, they are considered borderline high and if over 240 the level is considered high.
Triglyceride levels that are less than 150 are considered normal. When they go over 150 but stay below 199 they are considered borderline high. 200 to 499 is considered high and over 500 is considered very high.
Effects of High Cholesterol:
Heart Disease- High cholesterol is a major contributing factor to heart disease such as angina and heart attacks. When plaque builds up on artery walls, it prevents proper blood flow to the heart. Blood clots can also occur in narrowed vessels causing a total blockage, which is a common cause of heart attacks.
Stroke- If blood supply leading to the brain becomes blocked due to cholesterol build-up, this can cause a stroke to occur.
Peripheral Vascular Disease- Peripheral vascular disease develops when fatty deposits begin to build-up on the artery walls, affecting normal blood circulation. This mainly occurs in the arteries that lead to the legs and feet.
High Blood Pressure- High blood pressure can occur from plaque build-up on arteries. With narrowing of artery walls, the heart has to work harder to push the blood through the vessel.
Prevention and Management of High Cholesterol- There are certain actions people can take for lowering cholesterol levels and keep them within proper range. These include eating properly, avoiding foods that are high in cholesterol and saturated fats, regular exercise and losing weight if obese.