Cholesterol has long been branded as a villain, dead set on wreaking havoc in our bodies. To combat this villain, we’ve been told to avoid egg yolks and butter and cut back on burgers, bacon, and cheese. (The horror!) While it’s true that high cholesterol in the blood is one of the major risk factors for heart disease and stroke, there’s more to cholesterol than dire headlines and dietary restrictions.
To understand the truth about cholesterol, we need to dive into its origin story. Let’s start with the basics.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in the cells of the body and used to make vitamin D and hormones and help in food digestion. Cholesterol is naturally produced in the liver but also comes from the food we eat, specifically from animal sources like meat, poultry, and dairy products.
Cholesterol travels in our bloodstream through lipoproteins. These are special particles made of fat (lipid) and protein. There are two types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol in the body, which is why we have “good” cholesterol, and “bad” cholesterol.
HDL: The “Good” Cholesterol
The first type of cholesterol is known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol and plays a vital role in the functioning of the human body by helping to maintain the structure of cells and blood vessels. HDL also assists the body in hormone production. Cholesterol stored in the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes is converted to steroid hormones, which help the body combat problems with weight, sex, digestion, bone health, and mental health. In addition, HDL cholesterol helps the liver create bile, which helps us digest the food we consume.
LDL: The “Bad” Cholesterol
The second type of cholesterol is low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is dubbed “bad” cholesterol because too much of it can lead to the formation of sticky deposits, or plaque, along artery walls. When there’s too much of this bad cholesterol in the body, a condition called hypercholesterolemia can develop. Hypercholesterolemia is not only a word to fear in a spelling bee, it’s also a scary condition because the plaque formed by all the bad cholesterol can eventually constrict the flow of blood to the brain, heart, and other organs, which increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Optimal Blood Cholesterol Levels
After the age of 20, your cholesterol levels naturally begin to rise. In men, cholesterol levels generally level off after age 50. Women’s cholesterol levels often remain low until menopause, after which they rise to about the same levels as men.
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Family history also plays a role in cholesterol levels, which is why everyone over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol levels measured every few years. The normal range for total blood cholesterol falls between 140 and 200 mg/dL. Anything over 240 is considered high.
For LDL blood levels, the optimal number is under 100 mg/dL. Anything over 160 is considered high.
HDL levels of 60 mg/dL or higher help protect against heart disease. A number less than 40 signifies a major risk factor for heart disease.
So, remember, there’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Embrace the good and fight the bad!