Cholesterol 101: An introduction by the American Heart Association
If you’re reading this, you probably care about health and the role that cholesterol can play. That’s an important first step.
So, what is cholesterol? What does it do?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance. It’s not inherently “bad.” In fact, your body needs it to build cells. But too much cholesterol can pose a problem.
Cholesterol comes from two sources. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The remainder of the cholesterol in your body comes from foods derived from animals. For example, meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products all contain cholesterol, called dietary cholesterol.
Those same foods are high in saturated and trans fats. Those fats cause your liver to make more cholesterol than it otherwise would. For some people, this added production means they go from a normal cholesterol level to one that’s unhealthy.
Some tropical oils – such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil – can also trigger your liver to make more cholesterol. These oils are often found in baked goods.
Why cholesterol matters
Cholesterol circulates in the blood. As the amount of cholesterol in your blood increases, so does the risk to your health. That’s why it’s important to have your cholesterol tested, so you can know your levels.
There are two types of cholesterol: LDL cholesterol, which is bad, and HDL, which is good. Too much of the bad kind, or not enough of the good kind, increases the risk that cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain.
Cholesterol can join with other substances to form a thick, hard deposit on the inside of the arteries. This can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible – a condition known as atherosclerosis. If a blood clot forms and blocks one of these narrowed arteries, a heart attack or stroke can result.
When it comes to cholesterol, this is what to remember: check, change and control. That is:
- Check your cholesterol levels. It’s key to know your numbers.
- Change your diet and lifestyle to help improve your levels.
- Control your cholesterol, with help from your doctor if needed
High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. If you have other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes, your risk increases even more.
The more risk factors you have and the more severe they are, the more your overall risk is compounded.