Understanding cholesterol: The good, the bad and the heart healthy

A doctor holding a tablet speaks to a patient

To understand the potential risks of high cholesterol, it helps to understand the role cholesterol plays in our bodies. Here’s some helpful information.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all cells of the body.

Your body needs cholesterol to make vitamin D, produce certain hormones and generate substances that help you digest foods.1 Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. However, cholesterol is also found in some of the foods you eat.2

Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in small packages. These packages are made of fat (lipid) on the inside and proteins on the outside.

Two kinds of packages carry cholesterol throughout your body: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Having healthy levels of both types is important.

HDL is commonly referred to as the “good” cholesterol, while LDL cholesterol is the “bad” kind. Too much of the bad kind, or not enough of the good kind, increases the risk that cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed your heart and brain. Undiagnosed or untreated high cholesterol can lead to serious complications such as heart attack and stroke.3

Do your cholesterol levels put you at risk?

According to the Mayo Clinic, high cholesterol may be caused by weight gain, a diet high in saturated fat (an unhealthy fat found in most animals, their byproducts and some plants), trans fats (another unhealthy form of fat) and cholesterol.4 Lifestyle factors like smoking or being sedentary also add to your risk. Exercising or eating a heart-healthy diet may be enough to lower cholesterol, but for some people, high levels of LDL run in the family, and changing how they eat or exercise may not be enough.

Triglycerides, the most common fat found in the body, can also lead to heart disease. Low HDL, high LDL and high triglycerides may speed up the fatty buildup in your arteries. And just like cholesterol, triglycerides are affected by age, gender, family, health and lifestyle.5

What you can do

Controlling your cholesterol may take some work, but exercising regularly and watching what you eat are great first steps. The Mayo Clinic offers these simple tips for lowering your cholesterol:6

  • Limit fried and fatty foods. Eat more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Exercise regularly—find an exercise partner who will keep you motivated. Always check with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen.
  • Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, find a way to quit.

Above all, take charge of your health! Even if your cholesterol levels are good, healthy habits will help keep them that way.

For some people, diet and exercise aren’t enough to get their numbers down, but your doctor can help.

  • Talk to your doctor about your cholesterol levels and how often you should have them checked.
  • If your levels are high, work with your doctor to set goals and a treatment plan to reach them.
  • Take any medicine prescribed by your doctor as suggested—the right dose at the right time, every time.
  • Ask your doctor about living a heart-healthy lifestyle, including:
    • Losing weight
    • Adopting a healthy diet
    • Exercising
    • Quitting smoking

For more information about cholesterol and heart-healthy living, visit the American Heart Association website, opens new window.

Sources:

  1. “Why Cholesterol Matters for Women,” Johns Hopkins University, last accessed Nov. 10, 2019, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/why-cholesterol-matters-for-women, opens new window.
  2. “Control Your Cholesterol,” American Heart Association, last accessed Nov. 10, 2019, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol, opens new window.
  3. “High Blood Cholesterol,” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, last accessed Aug. 26, 2019, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/high-blood-cholesterol, opens new window.
  4. “High cholesterol: Symptoms and Causes” Mayo Clinic, last accessed Nov. 26, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800, opens new window
  5. “High Cholesterol.”
  6. “HighCholesterol: Diagnosis and treatment,” last accessed Nov. 26, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350806, opens new window