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Cholesterol: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Approximately 42 million Americans live with high cholesterol, which places them at higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Despite an increased awareness of the importance of managing cholesterol levels, many people are still confused about what their cholesterol numbers actually mean. The following seeks to clarify misconceptions and help you take control of your cholesterol.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood. Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol to help build healthy cells. Your liver normally makes all the cholesterol necessary for your body to function. Unfortunately, cholesterol is also found in foods, primarily full-fat dairy products, poultry, and meat. When you eat a diet high in these fats, your liver produces even more cholesterol.

The Dangers of High Cholesterol:

Excess cholesterol can collect along artery walls and form plaque that narrows the arteries. As the plaque calcifies, the arteries harden, and the heart has to work harder to circulate blood throughout the body. In some cases, plaques can break open and lead to clots, which can block major arteries resulting in a heart attack or stroke.

Good Cholesterol vs. Bad Cholesterol:

Cholesterol is carried through the blood by two types of lipoproteins:

  • Low-density lipoproteins—Also known as LDL or “bad” cholesterol, this type of cholesterol can lead to clogged arteries, hardened arteries, and peripheral vascular disease. Most doctors consider LDL levels between 100 and 129 mg/dL to be healthy.
  • High-density lipoproteins—Commonly referred to as HDL or “good” cholesterol, high-density lipoproteins help carry LDL cholesterol from the arteries to the liver where it can be broken down and flushed from the body. An HDL of 60 mg/dL or above can provide some protection against heart disease and stroke.

Another type of fat, called triglycerides, allows your body to store excess energy. High triglyceride levels are often associated with atherosclerosis and diabetes. A triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL or below is considered healthy.

Is Low Cholesterol Dangerous?

Very low cholesterol is very uncommon, so the risks are rare and unconfirmed. Low levels of LDL may be associated with conditions such as cancer, depression, and anxiety. The condition may also contribute to pre-term birth and low birth weight if it occurs during pregnancy.

What You Can Do:

Although heredity may contribute to high cholesterol, the key to maintaining cholesterol at a healthy level is a healthy diet and regular exercise.

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