It may surprise you to know that cholesterol itself isn't bad. In fact, cholesterol is just one of the many substances created and used by our bodies to keep us healthy.
What is cholesterol?
- Cholesterol is a waxy substance that comes from two sources: your body and food. Your body, and especially your liver, makes all the cholesterol you need and circulates it through the blood. But cholesterol is also found in foods from animal sources, such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Your liver produces more cholesterol when you eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats.
- Excess cholesterol can form plaque between layers of artery walls, making it harder for your heart to circulate blood. Plaque can break open and cause blood clots. If a clot blocks an artery that feeds the brain, it causes a stroke. If it blocks an artery that feeds the heart, it causes a heart attack. View an animation of cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol: "good" and "bad." Too much of one type — or not enough of another — can put you at risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke. It's important to know the levels of cholesterol in your blood so that you and your doctor can determine the best strategy to lower your risk.
- Making healthy eating choices and increasing exercise are important first steps in improving your cholesterol. For some people, cholesterol-lowering medication may also be needed to reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke.
What Can Cholesterol Do?
- High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
As your blood cholesterol rises, so does your risk of coronary heart disease. If you have other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes, this risk increases even further. The greater the level of each risk factor, the more that factor affects your overall risk. Your cholesterol level can be affected by your age, gender, family health history and diet.
- When too much LDL (bad) cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain. Together with other substances, cholesterol can form a thick, hard deposit called plaque that can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, a heart attack or stroke can result.
High Cholesterol - Risk
- LDL (bad) cholesterol is produced naturally by the body, but many people inherit genes from their mother, father or even grandparents that cause them to make too much. Eating foods with saturated fat or trans fats also increases the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood. If high blood cholesterol runs in your family, lifestyle modifications may not be enough to help lower your LDL blood cholesterol.
Symptoms, Diagnosis & Monitoring
- Many people do not know their cholesterol is too high because there are usually no symptoms. That's why it is important to have your cholesterol levels checked by your doctor.
Talk with your healthcare provider about assessing your risk for a heart attack or stroke. Cholesterol levels are an important factor in estimating your personal risk.
- Visit your healthcare provider to create an action plan that will help you make important lifestyle changes. Sometimes, medication is needed in addition to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Prevention and Treatment
- Too much cholesterol in the blood can lead to cardiovascular disease. The good news is, you can lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Working with your doctor is key. It takes a team to develop and maintain a successful health program. You and your healthcare professionals each play an important role in maintaining and improving your heart health.
- Work with your doctor to determine your risk and the best approach to manage it. In all cases, lifestyle changes are important to reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke. In some cases, cholesterol-lowering statin medicines may also provide benefit.
- Learn how to make diet and lifestyle changes easy and lasting. Also make sure you understand instructions for taking medication because it won't work if you don't take it as directed.
Diet, weight, physical activity and exposure to tobacco smoke all affect your cholesterol level.
Know Your Fats
Knowing which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don't is the first step in lowering your risk of heart disease.
Cooking for Lower Cholesterol
Heart-healthy eating plan can help you manage your blood cholesterol level.
Drug Therapy Options
For some people, lifestyle changes alone aren't enough to reach healthy cholesterol levels. Your doctor may prescribe medication.
The table below shows ranges for total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and HDL ("good") cholesterol levels after 9 to 12 hours of fasting. High blood cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Your doctor should discuss your results with you. He or she will advise you further if your results are outside the desirable range.
|Total Cholesterol Level
||Total Cholesterol Category
|Less than 200 mg/dL
|240 mg/dL and above
|LDL Cholesterol Level
||LDL Cholesterol Category
|Less than 100 mg/dL
||Near optimal/above optimal
|190 mg/dL and above
|HDL Cholesterol Level
||HDL Cholesterol Category
|Less than 40 mg/dL
||A major risk factor for heart disease
||The higher, the better
|60 mg/dL and above
||Considered protective against heart disease