A Doctor's Perspective on Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol is a molecule that circulates in our blood to help with vital cell functions in our bodies. We all need some amount of cholesterol. We inherit a good part of how our bodies produce and use cholesterol, but our lifestyles also influence these numbers. Too much cholesterol, known as hyperlipidemia or dyslipidemia, is something you want to avoid..
Although having high cholesterol usually does not come with obvious symptoms, it can have negative health consequences. High cholesterol has been linked to heart disease, stroke and overall circulation problems, called peripheral vascular disease. When you combine high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity with high cholesterol, the risk of heart attack and stroke increases drastically. Knowing your cholesterol numbers can help you understand your risk and what you can do about it.
Total cholesterol provides an overall summary of how much circulating cholesterol you have in your bloodstream. A normal value is considered below 200. High total cholesterol numbers, in general, increase your heart attack and stroke risk. However, doctors usually evaluate the breakdown of total cholesterol to help further understand your risk. This breakdown consists of your HDL cholesterol, your triglycerides and your LDL cholesterol.
HDL cholesterol is the good type of cholesterol. I call it the “heart healthy” cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol can actually reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. HDL levels above 60 are desired; HDL levels below 40 are not as protective at reducing your risk. There are no great medications for raising your HDL; however, exercise can increase your HDL. The more exercise, the better; but really any exercise is better than no exercise. You and your doctor can come up with an individualized plan that works for you.
Triglycerides are substances that, at high levels, can influence cardiovascular risk and inflammation in your pancreas. Normal triglyceride levels are below 150. Triglycerides can be closely associated with weight and diet choices. Limiting processed sugars and choosing low-fat options can help manage triglyceride levels. Even small amounts of weight loss can decrease your triglycerides.
LDL cholesterol is the bad type of cholesterol. I call it the “lousy” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the most important cholesterol molecule that influences your risk of heart disease and stroke. Diet choices that are low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables can lower LDL cholesterol. You should discuss with your doctor what level your LDL cholesterol should be. LDL cholesterol can be treated with medications; thus, decreasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Being informed about your cholesterol numbers is important for your health. It will help you learn about your risk for heart disease and stroke as well as give you an action plan to help control those numbers.