All About “Good” and “Bad” Cholesterol
When Cohen Medical Associates’ primary care doctors in Delray Beach, Florida, recommend that you raise your so-called “good” cholesterol and lower your “bad” cholesterol, do you understand how to go about that? Or do you even know why we recommend that you do so?
We’d like to explain the difference between these two types of cholesterol, show you why it’s important, and explain how to raise the good cholesterol and lower the bad.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell in your body. Made by your liver and also present in some foods, it helps your cells function properly, and helps synthesize Vitamin D as well as some hormones. These include cortisol and cortisone, and the sex hormones estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, among others. It also helps create the bile you need for digestion.
Cholesterol is transported through the body on proteins called “lipoproteins,” of which there are two types: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The LDL type makes up most of the cholesterol in the body (between two-thirds to three-quarters). The HDL type absorbs excess LDL cholesterol and returns it to the liver, where it is then flushed from the body.
Why is high cholesterol bad for you?
Despite the role cholesterol plays in keeping the body healthy, only a small amount is needed to maintain critical functions. When your body has too much of the LDL-type of cholesterol, it can build up on the walls of your blood vessels, causing them to become narrow. This, in turn, begins to block the free flow of blood to and from your heart and other organs in the body. When blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause chest pain (angina), a heart attack, or a stroke, among other cardiovascular problems. Thus, too much LDL is “bad” for your body, when it isn’t balanced by higher HDL cholesterol levels.
The confusion surrounding “high” and “low” cholesterol no doubt arises from their names. If we tell you your cholesterol levels are too “high,” you might think, “But isn’t ‘high’ cholesterol the good kind?” High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are good, and the higher that number, the better. But when we say you have “high” cholesterol, we’re talking about the “bad” type, the low-density lipoproteins. To throw even more confusion into the mix, triglycerides (the most common type of fat in the body) that are too high further contribute to fatty buildup in the arteries. High levels of triglycerides combine with high levels of LDLs raise the risk of cardiovascular disease even further.
How to lower bad cholesterol
So the optimal mix is low triglycerides combined with low LDL levels combined with high HDL levels in the blood.
There are a number of LDL cholesterol-lowering drugs available, including the very successful statins. But, as always, it is preferable to try to lower LDL levels naturally first. There are a number of ways to go about this:
- lose weight
- exercise regularly
- avoid trans fats (most commonly found in fried foods and pastries as well as margarine)
- avoid red meat and dairy products
- keep stress levels low.
These steps, combined with increasing HDL levels in the blood, are often sufficient for many people to remain healthy.
How to raise good cholesterol
Medications to raise HDL cholesterol have not proved effective in lowering the risk of heart attacks and stroke, so the best way to increase your supply is through lifestyle changes: quitting smoking, increasing aerobic exercise to a total of at least one hour a week, and improving your diet. This means consuming more fish, fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and olive oil.
In addition, avoid drugs containing testosterone and other anabolic steroids, which have been shown to lower HDL cholesterol levels.
It’s really not that difficult to keep “bad” cholesterol levels in check unless you have a genetic predisposition toward high LDLs. We can help you sort out the confusion surrounding cholesterol and heart health, as well as guide you toward better cholesterol levels.