Understanding cholesterol problems: taking the good with the bad
by Sue Lanza
The Importance of Cholesterol
The first time most of us think about cholesterol is when our doctor tells us that our levels are not in the normal range. What is this mysterious substance that has us worrying and watching our diet?
Cholesterol is a type of matter that has a fatty and waxy texture and is present in cell walls all throughout the body. It does serve an important purpose for the cells in making bile acids, hormones and many other critical materials for the body. Once the cells in the body create the cholesterol, it travels around in the blood stream in protective capsules called lipoproteins. These lipoproteins assist the cholesterol in moving to places where they are needed throughout the body. Amazingly, the body is capable of making all the cholesterol that it needs for functioning so ingesting foods with high amounts of cholesterol, such as beef, only adds more for the body to either dispose of or retain.
You'll recognize the two primary lipoproteins by the names and acronyms that your doctor probably sprouted out to you:
- High density lipoprotein (HDL) sometimes is referred to as a ""good"" kind of cholesterol since this lipoprotein transports cholesterol from cells and brings it to the liver for disposal from the body.
- Low density lipoprotein (LDL), often called the ""bad"" type of cholesterol, moves cholesterol in the opposite direction--to the cells and tissues. The build-up in the tissues can be dangerous with the excess cholesterol that can't be used stays behind in arteries causing plaque which narrows the blood flow to key organs.
So you doctor may have been pleased to see an elevation in your high density lipoprotein since this means you are disposing of cholesterol but not happy that you have higher than normal low density lipoprotein, which could lead to heart disease, if unchecked. That is why it is imperative that you know which type of your cholesterol is raised.
You may be surprised to learn that over 100 million adults in the United States have also been told that their cholesterol rates were outside the safe range. The Center for Disease Control tells us that about one third of all those with abnormal cholesterol levels have such increased readings that they are at the greatest risk for stroke or heart related ailments. A simple blood test can alert you and your doctor whether you are within the desirable areas:
- Less than 110 mg for LDL
- Greater than 35 mg for HDL
- Less than 170 mg for your total score
You've been given the news about your cholesterol and know the dangers, so how do you tackle it? Here are some of the recommended ways to control your cholesterol through daily life changes:
- Exercise actively a few times per week
- Eat a fiber-rich, low-fat diet
- Reduce your weight to a safe level
- Eliminate smoking
- Limit your sodium intake
In addition to your lifestyle modifications, your doctor may prescribe a medication to help you.
There is another side to the ""lowering"" discussion. Some recent studies suggest using caution about lowering cholesterol too much for those individuals sixty-five and older. Since the age groups used in most of the original studies were under sixty-five years of age, new reports using the older subjects are emerging that suggest aggressive lowering of cholesterol may not be as significant in lowering heart disease.
Your best bet is to review your blood work with your primary physician, and if warranted, seek a referral to a cardiologist or other cholesterol specialist to see what is best for your particular situation. Just like the rest of life, you'll want to balance the good with the bad.