Published on June 24, 2017
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Cholesterol is not exactly a barnburner of a topic, but it is one of the reasons why so many people make that first phone call to us AFTER their physician tells them their levels are high. And that’s a result almost always because an upward change in one’s weight results in an upward change in one’s cholesterol levels.
With the prevalence of obesity, more people are being diagnosed with high cholesterol; yet, and based only on my experience with clients, too many really don’t understand what “high cholesterol” means — either because the physician didn’t explain it to them, or they did but the client just didn’t get it and didn’t ask for clarification. So, I want to discuss it in what I hope is an easy-to-understand way, including my tip on the sure-fire way on how to remember the difference between the Good and the Bad. And I’m going to use the terms good and bad because most people only know of cholesterol in those terms. Those are the terms that a doctor will most often use to simplify for his patients understanding.
One of the biggest misconceptions out there (maybe second only to the idea that eating fat makes you fat) is that cholesterol is “bad” or “good.” All cholesterol is good! It is vital for our existence in several ways, not the least of which, just to name one, is that cholesterol is one of the main building blocks used to make cell membranes. This is important because every cell in our body is surrounded by a membrane. These membranes are largely responsible for fluidity and permeability, which essentially control how a cell moves, how it interacts with other cells, and how it transports “important” things in and out.
The only “bad” outcome is when cholesterol ends up inside the wall of an artery, most famously the inside of a coronary or carotid artery, AND leads to an inflammatory cascade of events which results in the obstruction of that artery . . . a major risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
OK, so what is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in all your body’s cells. As mentioned above, it’s normal to have cholesterol. We need it.
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Cholesterol cannot dissolve in the blood. It has to be transported to and from the cells by carriers called lipoproteins.
Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is known as bad cholesterol.High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as good cholesterol.
These two types of lipids, along with triglycerides, contribute to what your doctor or lab report will refer to as your total cholesterol count, which is determined through a blood test.
The Good: HDL Cholesterol
About one-fourth to one-third of blood cholesterol is carried by high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL cholesterol is known as “good” cholesterol, because high levels of HDL seem to protect against heart attack. Low levels of HDL also increase the risk of heart disease. Medical experts think that HDL tends to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s passed from the body. Some experts believe that HDL removes excess cholesterol from arterial plaque, thus slowing its buildup. When it comes to HDL (good) cholesterol, higher levels are better. Low HDL cholesterol puts you at higher risk for heart disease.
The Bad: LDL Cholesterol
When too much LDL cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain. Together with other substances, it can form plaque — a thick, hard deposit that can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, heart attack or stroke can result. When it comes to LDL cholesterol, lower levels are better because lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Ugly: Triglycerides
Triglyceride is a form of fat made in the body. Elevated levels of triglycerides are most often due to overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet very high in carbohydrates (60% of total calories or more). (Of course, underlying diseases or genetic disorders can also be the cause.) People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL (bad) level and a low HDL (good) level. Many people with heart disease and/or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.
OK, so if you’re still with me, and if your eyeballs aren’t glazed over, I just have one more thing to share: If you are like so many others who have a tough time remembering which is good (HDL) and which is bad (LDL), here’s a tip as to how to remember which is which:
L for Lousy . . . so LDL is bad H for Happy . . . so HDL is good
If your cholesterol is high due to overweight or obesity, get slim . . . get Happy!
For more on cholesterol, I highly recommend these sources:
How Stress Affects Your Cholesterol Level: Everything You Wanted to Know, by Karen Reed
Cholesterol & Heart Disease: There’s More To That Connection Than You Know, by Dr. Donald DeFabio
Forget What You’ve Heard. Here’s What You Need to Know About Cholesterol, by Amy Eisinger