What Do I Need to Know About Cholesterol Levels?

Staff Writer
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When you visit your doctor for your annual checkup, he or she may order certain routine tests that provide valuable information about your overall health, such as blood cell counts, blood glucose levels and blood cholesterol levels. Also known as a lipid panel, a blood cholesterol test measures the levels of lipids — HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides — in your blood. These readings play a critical role in evaluating heart health and your risk of serious health problems like heart attack and stroke.

When you receive the results of blood tests, all the letters and numbers can look like a form of secret code that seems almost impossible to decipher. It’s important to understand what your results are telling you about your heart and vascular health. Let’s take a look at what you need to know about your cholesterol levels.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that circulates in your blood to help your body produce necessary hormones, vitamin D and bile to digest food. Probably one of the most important things to understand is that your liver already makes all the cholesterol your body needs. That means any cholesterol you consume is more than you need as soon as you consume it. If the amount of cholesterol in your body climbs too high, it becomes a health risk. The most common culprits of dietary high cholesterol are eggs, cheeses and meats.

There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL cholesterol is generally known as “the bad cholesterol.” In your body, cholesterol is critical to cell development, and LDL cholesterol is the transport mechanism for moving all that cholesterol around. The problem occurs when you accumulate too much LDL cholesterol in your body. Excess cholesterol can cling to the walls of your arteries and combine with other particles in the blood to cause hard deposits known as plaque buildup.

On the other hand, HDL cholesterol is generally referred to as “the good cholesterol.” This type moves the excess cholesterol you don’t need back to your liver, so it can be processed and expelled from your body instead of accumulating. Numbers at the high end of the HDL range indicate you have more cholesterol working in your favor to help prevent the dangerous buildups in your blood vessels that could eventually lead to blockages.

What Are Healthy Cholesterol Levels?

Although cholesterol breaks down into LDL and HDL types, your blood results will also include a total cholesterol reading. Your optimal total blood cholesterol level should be less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood). Your ideal LDL cholesterol level should be lower than 100 mg/dL if you don’t have heart-related risk factors. If you already have heart disease or diabetes, this number should be below 70 mg/dL. Ideally, your HDL cholesterol level should be higher than 60 mg/dL.

Most charts include ranges for borderline high levels of cholesterol that fall between the optimal levels and dangerously high levels. Your total blood cholesterol would be considered high at 240 mg/dL. LDL becomes a higher risk factor for those with heart disease at 100 mg/dL but isn’t considered high for those without heart disease until it reaches 160 mg/dL. It is classified as very high for anyone at 190 mg/dL. To reap some benefits of HDL cholesterol, women need to maintain HDL levels of at least 50 mg/dL, while men can still see benefits at a slightly lower level of 40 mg/dL. 

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides aren't a type of cholesterol; they are the most common type of fat in the blood. Most of that fat eventually gets stored in fat cells, but when LDL cholesterol is high or HDL cholesterol is low, some of this fat could build up in blood vessels, increasing the risk of stroke or coronary issues.

Most cholesterol tests include a reading for triglycerides because of their relationship to coronary artery disease. People with high triglyceride levels have an increased risk of developing heart disease and atherosclerosis, a hardening or clogging of the arteries that is directly linked to the risk of stroke and heart attack. High triglyceride levels can also cause inflammation in your pancreas and could be one of the first indicators of diabetes, hypothyroidism and metabolic syndrome.

What Causes High Cholesterol Levels?

High cholesterol levels are sometimes the result of genetics, medical conditions or medications. However, high cholesterol occurs most often because of unhealthy lifestyle choices. For example, eating excessive amounts of saturated fat raises your LDL cholesterol level, making it difficult for HDL cholesterol to help maintain a balance.

In terms of HDL levels, both obesity and lack of exercise can lower your HDL cholesterol. Smoking does even more damage to both types of cholesterol levels. It lowers the level of HDL cholesterol and raises the level of LDL cholesterol. This is especially true for women. Additionally, the components in tobacco thicken your blood, which increases your chance of developing a dangerous blood clot. When you combine smoking with high cholesterol levels, you have a higher risk of heart disease.

How to Manage Cholesterol Levels

In most cases, the best way to manage your cholesterol levels is to make healthier lifestyle choices. If you are a smoker, it's time to quit. You also need to cut back on the amount of fatty meats you consume. Instead, eat more fruits and vegetables and increase your activity levels. These changes will also help you lose weight if you are overweight.

If you can’t manage your cholesterol levels through diet and exercise, your doctor may prescribe medication to help. Even if you start taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, you should also work to improve your eating and activity habits. Don't wait until your cholesterol levels reach dangerous ranges before making these life changes. If you develop these habits now, it will help you build a solid foundation for a heart-healthy future.

Resource Links:

https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800

https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/causes-of-high-cholesterol

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350806

https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/hdl-good-ldl-bad-cholesterol-and-triglycerides

https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/why-diabetes-matters/cholesterol-abnormalities--diabetes