Cholesterol and heart disease – do you know your numbers?

Cholesterol and heart disease – do you know your numbers?

You may have heard about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol. But what is it, and how do you know if you have the right amount?

Your body uses cholesterol, a type of fat, to make important compounds like vitamin D and hormones. Hormones control functions like digestion, mood, and reproduction. Many people don’t realize that your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. But you also absorb it from your diet.

Knowing the bad from the good


Cholesterol can’t travel through your blood stream. Instead, your digestive tract packages it into a ‘lipoprotein.’ Think of these as a raft of cholesterol molecules packed together. I carries it to organs in your body. There are two kinds of lipoprotein rafts: low-density and high-density.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Low density, or LDL, is ‘bad’ because it builds up in your blood vessels. If LDL levels are high, the compounds stick together and form ‘plaques’ of gunk that build up in arteries. The most serious risk of plaques is a heart attack. Click here (Note: link to heart disease blog post if desired) to learn about other heart problems caused by plaques in the blood.
High density, or HDL, is ‘good’ because it scavenges the body for LDL and takes it to the liver to be re-used. As a result, having higher level of HDL lowers the amount of LDL in the blood. Which also lowers your risk of heart disease.

How do I know my levels?


If you are over 20 years old, you should get your blood tested once every five years. You will need to fast (not eat any food) for about 12 hours before your appointment. You doctor will draw blood to take four important measurements:

  1. LDL (Amount of “bad” cholesterol in your blood)
  2. HDL (Amount of “good” cholesterol in your blood)
  3. Total cholesterol (Amount of LDL and HDL combined in your blood)
  4. Trigclycerides (a type of fat that combines with LDL to form plaques.)

What raises my LDL (“bad”) cholesterol?


  • * Low levels of HDL – the “good” cholesterol that removes LDL from the blood
    * Cigarette smoking
    * Family history of heart disease
    * Age – men over 45 years old and women over 55
    * Gender – women are more likely than men to have high LDL levels

How can I improve my numbers?


  • * Eat HDL-friendly fooods like olive oil, beans an legumes, high-fiber fruits, and fatty fish
    * Avoid LDL-heavy foods including trans fats, fatty red meats, eggs, and milk products with more then 1% milk fat. Fast food is often heavy in LDL.
    * Increasing exerciese and losing weight. This increases the amount of HDL (good cholesterol) and lower LDL (bad cholesterol)
    * If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Additional resources here.
    * You can’t change your gender, age, or family history of heart disease. But your doctor can prescribe medications that will counter these risks. These include:

– Statins, a drug that prevent the liver from making cholesterol

– Vitamins and supplements that reduce LDL and raise HDL

– Inhibitors can block how much fat is absorbed from your diet.

Remember! It is important to stay on top of your levels to keep your heart healthy and to prevent life-threatening heart attacks and blood clots. If you need help remembering, try this:

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