Cholesterol and its effects
[In the last installment of The Healthy Geezer, we focused upon triglycerides. This column is a companion piece about cholesterol.]
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in blood. You need it to produce cell membranes, protect nerves and make hormones.
The body can make all the cholesterol it needs. Most cholesterol is made by your liver. You also get cholesterol from foods such as meat, eggs and dairy products. Too much cholesterol is dangerous, because cholesterol can lead to blockages in your blood vessels.
Cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream in packages called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) deliver cholesterol to the body. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) remove cholesterol from the bloodstream. LDLs are often described as “bad” cholesterol; HDLs are called “good” cholesterol.
If there are too many LDLs in the blood, they will combine with other material in your bloodstream to manufacture plaque, a waxy crud that builds up on the inner walls of the blood vessels that feed your brain and heart. When this build-up occurs, you have a condition called “atherosclerosis,” which is commonly referred to as “hardening of the arteries.”
If a clot forms in blood vessels narrowed by plaque, it can block blood flow, which can cause a heart attack or a stroke.
The recommended levels of cholesterol are as follows:
Total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered desirable for adults. A reading between 200 and 239 mg/dL is considered borderline high, and a reading of 240 mg/dL and above is considered high.
LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 100 mg/dL. Levels of 100 to 129 mg/dL are acceptable for people with no health issues but may be of more concern for those with heart disease or heart disease risk factors. A reading of 130 to 159 mg/dL is borderline high, and 160 to 189 mg/dL is high. A reading of 190 mg/dL or higher is considered very high.
HDL levels should be kept higher. A reading of less than 40 mg/dL is considered a major risk factor for heart disease. A reading from 41 mg/ dL to 59 mg/dL is considered borderline low. The optimal reading for HDL levels is of 60 mg/dL or higher.
If your total cholesterol level is high because of high LDLs, you may be at higher risk of heart disease or stroke. If your total level is high only because of high HDLs, you’re probably not at higher risk.
Some physicians use the ratio of total cholesterol to HDLs. The ratio is obtained by dividing the HDLs into the total cholesterol. The goal is to keep the ratio below 5 to 1.
(Interesting fact: Male sex hormones lower HDL levels. Female sex hormones raise HDL levels. Draw your own conclusions.)
What can you do to control cholesterol?
Cholesterol is in all foods from animals, so reduce your intake of meat, eggs and dairy products. Cut back on fatty foods such as snacks, desserts and anything fried. Eat vegetables and fruit.
Regular physical activity increases HDL cholesterol in some people. Weight loss can help lower your bad cholesterol.
Smoking lowers HDL cholesterol levels and increases the tendency for blood to clot.
People who consume moderate amounts of alcohol (one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women) have a lower risk of heart disease than nondrinkers. However, alcohol can be unhealthy. For example, a small amount of alcohol can make a big increase in triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a fat in your blood that should be kept in check. Whether you should drink a moderate amount of alcohol is definitely a question you should ask your personal physician.
Get your physician’s advice, too, about drugs to lower your cholesterol. If lifestyle changes don’t help you, you may need to take medicine to lower your cholesterol level.
Fred Cicetti is a freelance writer who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey. If you would like to ask a question, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.