In actuality, cholesterol is an essential nutrient necessary for many functions of the body. It is when the levels in the blood rise that there are dangerous consequences. Cholesterol is considered healthy when it is attached to what is called high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Lipoproteins are the transportation vehicles that carry cholesterol and other fat molecules through the bloodstream.
Most of the information about the effects of cholesterol on the body are concerns about the lipoproteins that carry the cholesterol around in the body. There are several different kinds of lipoproteins, divided into categories based on their size and density (how compact they are). Low-density lipoproteins (LDL—often called “bad” or “lousy” cholesterol) are the major carriers of cholesterol. High-density lipoproteins (HDL—referred to as “good” or “healthy” cholesterol) are smaller and very compact—hence the name high density.
Healthy carriers of (HDL) act as your blood stream’s garbage truck, hauling excess cholesterol to the liver where it can then be sent out of the body. HDL actually removes cholesterol from the walls of the arteries and returns it to the liver. It helps keep arteries open and reduces the risk of a heart attack.
Research data has also strongly indicated that healthy carriers of cholesterol can actually induce plaques within the arteries to regress and reabsorb, thus reversing the process of atherosclerosis. Research has shown that high levels of these healthy carriers are as important for a healthy heart as low levels of the bad cholesterol carriers (LDL).
The higher the level of HDL in the blood, the greater the decrease in the risk of coronary artery disease. Low levels of healthy cholesterol carriers (HDL) have been shown to increase the risk for coronary artery disease and early damage to arterial walls, even when the levels of the unhealthy cholesterol carriers (LDL) are low. In a research study, low levels of healthy cholesterol carriers had three times more of an influence on the incidence of coronary artery disease than high levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol carriers. Low levels of HDL cholesterol in the blood are associated with an increased incidence of heart attacks, sudden death, and stroke.
To determine your blood level of cholesterol, you need to have a blood test that includes all lipoprotein categories: total cholesterol; LDL (the bad stuff); HDL (the good stuff); and triglycerides (another category of lipoprotein). Tests for home use and in public locations (such as shopping malls and pharmacies) usually only measure total cholesterol. A full lipid profile needs to be done by a laboratory. Women should try to push their healthy cholesterol carrier levels to above 50mg/dl. Scientists have determined that every 1-point increase in HDL cuts heart-disease risk by 1 percent.
The first action to raise your healthy cholesterol level is to make changes in your lifestyle. You can lose weight, take part in aerobic exercise, and eat a heart-healthy diet. It goes without saying, but not smoking is very important.
Reprinted with permission Pacific Union Recorder, March 2007, p. 25.