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What do cholesterol measurements mean for our health?

02 September 2020

Dr Sally Harris is shining a light on cholesterol. What is it, how is it measured, and what do the measurements mean for our health?  Sally is a General Practitioner working at The Wilmslow Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK. 

Cholesterol has a negative public image but what many people don’t know is it’s vital for our health. But like most things in life, and health, getting the correct balance is key. 

Cholesterol is a substance made in the liver. We also receive cholesterol through our diet. Cholesterol can’t be created by plants, so it comes from animal products like meat and dairy. 

But why is it important? Cholesterol serves three vital purposes in our bodies:

  1. It aids in the production of sex hormones
  2. It’s a building block for human tissues
  3. It assists in bile production in the liver

But, as we are all too aware, you can have too much of a good thing. This is where low-density (LDL), known as ‘good’ cholesterol, and high-density (HDL), known as ‘bad’ cholesterol comes in. Both LDL and HDL are lipoproteins, which are compounds made of fat and protein that are responsible for carrying cholesterol throughout the body in the blood.

LDL is known as the bad guy of the cholesterol world because too much of it can lead to hardening of the arteries. And when this plaque builds up on the artery walls, it can narrow the blood vessels, straining the flow of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Additionally, it can lead to blood clots, which can block the flow of blood and cause a heart attack or stroke. HDL is the good guy of the cholesterol world because it helps maintain cardiovascular health, protecting against stroke and heart attack. It also stands up to the bad guy, supporting the removal of LDL from the arteries. It does this by taking the bad cholesterol back to the liver, where it’s broken down and eliminated from the body.

So when it comes to testing, what do the numbers mean? When you have your cholesterol checked, you’ll receive measurements for both your HDL and LDL, as well as for your total cholesterol and triglycerides. An ideal total cholesterol level is lower than 200 mg/dL. Anything between 200 and 239 mg/dL is borderline, and anything above 240 mg/dL is high.  When it comes to your cholesterol numbers, your LDL is the one you want to keep low — ideally less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). 

How do we keep these numbers in check?

There are several things that influence your cholesterol numbers. Thankfully the majority of which we have control over. While heredity factors can play a role, so too do diet, weight, and exercise.

Eating foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fats, getting regular exercise, and managing your weight are all associated with lower cholesterol levels and lower risks of cardiovascular disease. Your doctor may also prescribe medicines, such as statins, to lower and control your high blood cholesterol.If you are concerned about your cholesterol, speak to your GP.

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