Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the fats in your blood. The cholesterol in your blood comes from two sources: the foods you eat and your liver. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs.
While the body needs some cholesterol for essential functions, having high cholesterol puts your health at risk. When your cholesterol is too high, it contributes to plaque buildup in your arteries, which can clog them and lead to heart disease and stroke.
Types of Cholesterol
There are different types of cholesterol in your blood – some good and some bad. Understanding each of the components can help you and your doctor to develop a strategy to keep your levels in the healthy range.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol. Its job is to carry the bad cholesterol in your blood back to the liver, where it is excreted. High levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol. When levels are too high, it sticks to the walls of your arteries and causes damage. The buildup is called plaque, and it causes your arteries to harden and become narrower. If a blood clot forms, it can get stuck in these narrow arteries and create a blockage, leading to a heart attack or stroke.
- Triglycerides are another form of fat in your blood. The bulk of your body's fat tissue is in the form of triglycerides. The link between triglycerides and heart disease is being studied. But many people with high triglycerides also have other risk factors, like high LDL levels or low HDL levels.
Diagnosing High Cholesterol
The American Heart Association recommends that adults over the age of 20 have a cholesterol test, called a lipid profile, every five years. This simple blood test measures your total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The test involves drawing your blood after you fast for at least 12 hours. If your cholesterol levels are high, or if you have certain risk factors such as coronary heart disease – your doctor may recommend more frequent tests.
Treating High Cholesterol
- Lifestyle Changes: In many cases, high cholesterol can be managed with changes to your diet and exercise routine.
- Medication: Medicines are used to lower fats in the blood, particularly LDL cholesterol. Statins are a group of medicines that can do this. They include simvastatin, atorvastatin, and pravastatin. Two other types of medicines that lower cholesterol levels are bile acid sequestrants such as colesevelam, cholestyramine, and colestipol, and nicotinic acid (niacin).