5 Things You Need to Know About Your Cholesterol


What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all of the body's cells. Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, Vitamin D and substances that help you digest your food. Ample levels of cholesterol are produced by the body, mainly in the liver, but it also is found in some of the foods you eat. The liver will produce more cholesterol when you have a diet high in saturated and trans fats.

Since cholesterol is not dissolvable in the blood, it is required to be moved through the bloodstream with carriers, the LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol). The LDL is bad because it causes plaque to build up in the arteries and if a clot forms at the area of plaque build-up, a heart attack or stroke can occur. The HDL is a scavenger and carrier of the LDL through the blood stream, where it takes the LDL back to the liver where it is broken down and passed through the body.

Triglycerides are another type of fat, which is utilized by your body to store excess energy from your diet. In excess, the triglycerides lead to atherosclerosis.

How are cholesterol levels measured?

It is important to know what your levels are. They are tested by a fasting (no eating anything with a calorie 12-14 hours prior) blood test. The American Heart Association recommends that all adults 20 or older have their cholesterol and risk factors checked every 4-6 years.

  • Total cholesterol is the sum of your HDL, LDL and 20% or your triglyceride level
  • HDL (good) Higher levels are better. Low levels of HDL are associated with heart disease
  • LDL (bad) Lower levels are better.
  • Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body. High triglycerides with low HDL levels, or high LDL is associated with atherosclerosis

How Do I know if I need to treat my cholesterol?

You will need a risk assessment, which considers the following:

  • Your healthcare provider will question if you have had a previous heart attack, stroke or blockages in your heart, neck or leg arteries
  • Total and LDL cholesterol levels
  • Age, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoker, low HDL and family history

How do I treat my cholesterol?

First and foremost, you need to follow a heart healthy diet that includes vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Utilize low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes and nuts. Limit sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and read meats.

Medications are available for treatment if risk factors warrant. Statins provide the greatest benefit and fewer safety issues and are recommended for persons with known heart disease, very high LDL, Type II Diabetes in patients between the age of 40 and 75, and persons with a higher likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years. Other medications are available to treat cholesterol if a statin is not the right drug.

How do I Reduce My Risk for Developing Heart Disease?

Make healthy choices with your diet by eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Choose low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes and nuts. Limit sweets and sugar-sweetened soda and teas and limit red meat intake. Increase your exercise and physical activity, maintain a healthy weight and don't smoke, or quit if you do. 

Discuss your health history with your healthcare provider, who can assist you in managing your long-term healthcare goals. General guidelines for cholesterol levels are as follows, but health history needs to be considered when cholesterol goals are being managed: 

Total cholesterol             <200 desirable 

                                          200-239 borderline high 

                                         >240 high

HDL                                  <40 low for males 

                                         <50 low for females

LDL                                  <70 with known heart disease or diabetes 

                                         <100 optimal 

                                         100-129 near optimal/above optimal if heart disease 

                                         130-159 borderline high 

                                         160-189 high 

                                         >190 very high

Triglycerides                     <150

Lisa Larson, APN, in an advanced practice nurse at SwedishAmerican's Midwest Heart Specialists clinic in Rockford.