Wellness Matters: What is cholesterol and why do we measure it?
By Amanda Schulte Beyeler Mar 6, 2017
Cholesterol is not all bad. In fact, it is needed to build cells and make hormones.
Cholesterol is a chemical compound found in most body tissues. In our bloodstream, cholesterol is attached to protein and, together, they are called a lipoprotein. There are two types of lipoprotein: LDL (low density lipoprotein, or the “bad cholesterol”) and HDL (high density lipoprotein.)
Why do health professionals test cholesterol?
Testing your cholesterol is important because elevated cholesterol levels don’t usually have any symptoms. The tests can help your provider identify your risk for heart disease or stroke. Your healthcare provider will also take into consideration your blood pressure, your age, sex and race, tobacco use, and whether or not you are diabetic when reviewing your results.
A lipid profile measures cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides (the main component of body fat). LDL cholesterol carries fat from the liver to the rest of the body. The excess is deposited in the arteries, causing plaque buildup. This can cause hardening of the arteries and slow or block blood flow. A blockage of blood flow can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.
HDL, sometimes called good cholesterol, moves cholesterol from the bloodstream and takes it to the liver for disposal. High HDL can be a factor in reducing risk for heart disease.
What causes high cholesterol?
Diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol can cause elevated lipid results. Problem foods include egg yolks, fast food, processed meat and cheese, and pastries. Being overweight or having low physical activity levels are also risk factors.
Women generally have lower levels of total cholesterol compared to men, until after the age of menopause, when their levels tend to rise. High cholesterol can also run in families.
How can I lower my cholesterol?
A diet low in saturated fat can reduce cholesterol intake and promote weight loss. Physical activity helps reduce LDL and increase HDL.
In addition to lifestyle changes, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication such as statins, bile acid sequestrants and cholesterol absorption inhibitors. Niacin, which is an over-the-counter supplement, blocks the liver from removing HDL and also lowers triglycerides. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) are other supplements used to increase HDL and lower triglycerides.
Talk to your provider before starting any new medication, including over-the-counter supplements. For more information on how to jump-start your health journey, contact the NERD Health and Wellness Center.
AMANDA SCHULTE BEYELER
Amanda Schulte Beyeler is a registered nurse and a health and wellness coach at the NERD Health and Wellness Center. She enjoys listening to NPR, exploring new books in the nonfiction section of the library, and spending time with her husband, Andrew, and their two daughters.