Cholesterol 101: A Basic Guide to Understanding Cholesterol

Cholesterol is something that people have learned to fear. We spend a lot of time eating foods that don’t have much of it, and we get our blood tested for it, but what is this strange substance that’s responsible for damaging our hearts?

Cholesterol is a material that’s waxy and fatty. It’s found in the blood and all of the cells of the body. In fact, cholesterol can be a good thing – you’re supposed to have some.

Your body puts it to good use when it’s making cell membranes and putting together the building blocks of hormones. So, why do we worry so much about having it if we need it?

Too much cholesterol in the body results in hypercholesterolemia, the technical term for high cholesterol. When your body has more cholesterol than it can use for its everyday processes, the rest of it ends up floating freely in the blood. When this happens, it begins to become deposited on the blood vessel walls.

Where does all this cholesterol come from? Interestingly enough, your body actually produces about ¾ of the cholesterol in your blood. The remaining ¼ of your blood cholesterol comes from the foods you eat. 

People often have high cholesterol because genetically, they’re designed to produce more, regardless of what they eat. Sometimes people have high cholesterol mainly due to overeating foods high in cholesterol.

All cholesterol is not created equal. The bad kind of cholesterol is LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and triglyceride (which comes from fatty foods). The good kind of cholesterol is HDL (high-density lipoprotein).

LDL is the kind of cholesterol that gets deposited on your blood vessel walls, and HDL actually goes and picks up the bad cholesterol to help keep it away from your blood vessel walls. Naturally, you want your LDL levels to be low and your HDL levels to be high.

Many people can manage high cholesterol levels by improving their diet. That consists of eating a low amount of saturated fat and a high amount of fiber.  Physical activity is also one way to raise your HDL levels. However, sometimes genetics overrides your lifestyle, and medication is required to lower your blood cholesterol levels.

You must get a yearly checkup and have your blood cholesterol levels measured. This will help you to determine if you need to improve your lifestyle or medication routine. High cholesterol leads to hardening of the arteries, called atherosclerosis. It’s a major cause of heart disease.   

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