Have come across the term “high cholesterol” in several health-related discussions and could never decode what it exactly is? Here we explain what is cholesterol, the difference between good and bad cholesterol, and the basics of cholesterol tests.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood. Every organ in your body including the brain, skin, and other organs needs cholesterol to do their jobs. However, you need a little and not a lot of it!.
In the body, cholesterol is produced from your liver. Apart from this naturally synthesized cholesterol, you also can get it from the foods you eat. Meat, fish, eggs, butter, cheese, and milk all have cholesterol in them. Fruits and green vegetables do not have any cholesterol. Too much of anything can be detrimental. Similarly, eating too much fat and cholesterol can impact your body and health negatively.
What are the types of cholesterol?
Cholesterol in your blood needs to travel through the body, but it can’t do this on its own. So, it combines with proteins to travel through the bloodstream. This cholesterol and protein that travel together are called lipoproteins.
Chiefly, there are two types of cholesterol:
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol or bad cholesterol: Carries cholesterol from the liver into the blood, where it can stick to the blood vessels.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol or good cholesterol: Carries the cholesterol in the blood back to the liver, where it is broken down.
Find it difficult to remember which one is good and what is bad? Here’s a hack: the HDL is the good cholesterol, so remember it as “healthy” cholesterol — “H” for healthy. The other one is bad cholesterol.
What happens if you have too much bad cholesterol?
If your body has too much LDL (bad) cholesterol, this can stick and build upon the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup is called “plaque.” As this plaque continues to thicken over time, the inside lumen of the blood vessels get narrowed. These narrower blood vessels pose an obstruction to the blood flow to and from your heart and other organs. And, when blood flow to the heart is obstructed, it can cause chest pain or even a heart attack. So, bad cholesterol and heart disease are directly related.
Your body naturally produces all the (bad) cholesterol it needs. However, an unhealthy lifestyle can make your body produce more LDL cholesterol than it needs and causes LDL cholesterol levels to rise in the blood:
Factors that lead to an increase in bad cholesterol levels include:
- Eating unhealthy
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Smoking or exposure to tobacco smoke
- Being overweight or obese
When people say high cholesterol, they usually mean high levels of bad cholesterol and/or low levels of good cholesterol.
Heredity can play a role too
You may inherit genes from the family members such as your mother, father, or even grandparents that cause you to have too much cholesterol. This is called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). FH is dangerous because it can lead a person to develop premature atherosclerotic heart disease.
How to know if you have high cholesterol?
A complete cholesterol test — also called a lipid panel or lipid profile — is a simple blood test that can measure the amount of cholesterol (and triglycerides) in your blood. This is an important tool for identifying people at significant risk of developing heart disease, especially coronary artery disease. This test can help determine your risk of the buildup of plaques in your arteries that can cause narrowed or blocked arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis.
Who should get a cholesterol test?
You might be at the risk of having high cholesterol levels and need to take a cholesterol test if you:
- Have a family history of high cholesterol or heart attacks
- Are overweight
- Have an inactive lifestyle
- Eat an unhealthy diet
- Indulge in cigarette smoking
- Are a man older than 45 or a woman older than 55
- Have diabetes
As per the clinical guidelines, people with a history of strokes or heart attacks need regular cholesterol testing to track the effectiveness of their medicines
When to get tested?
- If you are an adult having no risk factors for heart disease, take it as a regular health checkup once every four to six years; children, teens, and young adults should be tested once between the ages of 9 and 11 and then again between the ages of 17 and 21.
- When risk factors for heart disease are present, when prior results showed high-risk levels, and/or when undergoing any type of treatment for high cholesterol levels, testing should be done more frequently and at regular intervals of time.
- If you are an adult at average risk of developing coronary artery disease, you should have your cholesterol checked every five years, beginning at age 18.
How to prevent high cholesterol levels?
Making lifestyle changes is the first and foremost step to lower your cholesterol level and reduce the risk of developing heart disease. Make exercise an essential part of your daily routine. Avoid processed and deep-fried food items. If you think you might have high cholesterol, get tested, and consult your doctor to seek treatment on time.
Making even modest changes now can help you to prevent high cholesterol levels that can save you from significant medical issues later such as heart attack and stroke.