Cholesterol: Knowing the Facts

by Senior Care Staff on January 10, 2012

Health organizations, doctors and other medical professionals advise millions of patients every year regarding cholesterol. News reports and nutrition experts offer a wealth of recommendations for managing cholesterol through diet and exercise. Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, LDL, HDL, triglycerides, trans fat, saturated fats; these are the buzzwords most often heard, but not always understood.

Cholesterol Basics

The human body naturally produces cholesterol in the liver, as well as other body cells. This waxy fat helps transport important proteins, known as lipoproteins, during the production of certain hormones and other compounds. Cholesterol comes primarily in two forms, low-density and high-density, although a third type of cholesterol does circulate in the bloodstream.

Low-density lipoprotein, abbreviated as LDL, is the so-called bad cholesterol. LDL is the cholesterol best known for clogging arteries and contributing to heart problems. When too much is present, it sticks to artery walls and forms a plague.  Alternatively, high-density lipoprotein, better known as HDL, is the good cholesterol. HDL helps to police LDL by facilitating its movement through the body and preventing LDL from sticking to artery walls.

The body needs a proper balance between HDL and LDL to function properly, typically under 100mg/L for LDL and over 40mg/L for HDL, depending on gender. Too much LDL or not enough HDL cholesterol results in plague build up and more strain on the heart and circulatory systems. According to the American Heart Association, an HDL level under 40-50mg/L, depending on gender, increases the chances that an individual will develop heart disease.  On the other hand, not enough LDL or too much HDL inhibits the body’s ability to transport the lipoproteins a body needs.

Research further identified another type of cholesterol, known as lipoprotein (a) or Lp(a). Lp(a) is a genetic type of low-density lipoprotein. Scientists do not fully understand the purpose or function of Lp(a), although some suggest it helps coagulation in certain situations. Low Lp(a) levels do not, according to research, create any health risk. However, high Lp(a) levels have been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease and similar health problems.

But What About Triglycerides?

Although not a type of cholesterol, triglycerides are commonly associated with cholesterol. In fact, medical professionals typically test both cholesterol and triglyceride levels simultaneously. Triglycerides are another type of fat, or lipid, produced by the body. Unlike cholesterol, the purpose of triglycerides is to store anything the body takes in that it does not currently need.

For example, if a person takes in carbohydrates that are not immediately needed, the body produces triglycerides to store the surplus for later use. Generally, unhealthy cholesterol levels go hand-in-hand with unhealthy triglyceride levels. The same conditions and choices that raise cholesterol also raise triglycerides. Likewise, the treatment recommendations and lifestyle changes for high cholesterol also work for high triglycerides.

Dietary Factors and Cholesterol

The body produces as much as 75 percent of the cholesterol circulating in the blood stream at any given time. The remaining 25 percent is the result of an individual’s dietary choices. Without added fats from dietary intake, the body has the capacity to produce enough cholesterol to effectively transport all of the lipoproteins needed. However, certain inherited genetic traits cause some individuals to produce more cholesterol than required, regardless of dietary factors.

The primary culprit responsible for increased cholesterol is the intake of certain types of dietary fat. Nearly every food consumed by people has some amount of fat, even vegetables like lettuce or carrots. Not all dietary fats are bad, however. Primarily, unsaturated fats are good for the body, whereas saturated fats and trans fatty acids are bad.

Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans Fats

Unsaturated fats, such as those found in certain types of nuts, seeds and olive oil, have numerous beneficial effects on the body. These types of fat help to ease inflammation, keep heart rhythms in check, and even help lower bad cholesterol levels. When making dietary choices, unsaturated fats are the optimal choice, giving the body beneficial fats without increasing cholesterol levels.

Saturated fats occur naturally in most animal products. Saturated fats raise total cholesterol, including both good and bad forms, and therefore, should be eaten in moderation. Trans fats, such as found in hydrogenated vegetable oil and most convenience foods, are the worst in terms of cholesterol. These fats not only raise LDL cholesterol, but simultaneously lower HDL. Additionally, trans fats aggravate inflammation, contributing to numerous immune-related health conditions.

The Harvard School for Public Health (HSPH) has extensively researched dietary habits and their effect on cholesterol. The HSPH website offers helpful advice, as well as some staggering figures regarding diet, cholesterol and fats.  Likewise, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers tips and suggestions specifically for women regarding diet and cholesterol.

Exercise, Smoking and other Lifestyle Factors

In addition to diet, other lifestyle choices affect cholesterol levels. Smoking, drinking alcohol and an individual’s activity level all have a profound impact on cholesterol and associated health concerns. For example, studies link cigarette smokers with lower HDL cholesterol levels compared to the HDL levels of non-smokers. Female cigarette smokers showed a more significant drop in HDL levels than male smokers.

Numerous reports also expound the benefits of drinking a glass of wine or beer a day to raise HDL cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease. However, the American Heart Association and other organizations do not recommend using alcohol as a means to control cholesterol, due to the risk of stroke, liver cirrhosis, and other health problems caused by moderate to heavy consumption of alcohol. In the case of light alcohol consumption, healthcare providers offer mixed recommendations regarding its use, since there are positives and negatives involved.

Exercise and physical activity are, however, always recommended for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Experts suggest that part of the benefit of exercise lies in maintaining a healthy weight, since obesity is directly linked to high LDL and triglyceride levels. Additionally, exercise releases certain chemicals in the body that help facilitate the expulsion of excess LDL cholesterol particles. Combined with dietary changes, exercise is one of the most commonly recommended options for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.

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