We all need cholesterol. It is an important component of cell membranes, and it is used to make important vitamins and hormones. But high levels of cholesterol in your blood can be bad for your health.
Excess cholesterol can settle on the inner walls of blood vessels, narrowing them and promoting blood clots. Cholesterol build-up and clots can slow down or even stop the flow of blood passing through the vessels.
We get some of our cholesterol from foods like eggs, dairy products, and red meat. But our bodies also make cholesterol in an organ called the liver.
Cholesterol Travels in Lipoproteins
Whether it comes from the diet or is made by the liver, cholesterol travels through the bloodstream to where it is needed. Because it is a lipid, like oil, cholesterol doesn't mix well with our watery blood. So cholesterol must be carried through the blood stream by special proteins. Cholesterol traveling with a protein is called a lipoprotein. Lipoproteins also transport fats.
Lipoproteins exist in different forms, including LDLs (Low-Density Lipoproteins) and HDLs (High-Density Lipoproteins). LDLs deliver cholesterol to cells, whereas HDLs remove excess cholesterol from the blood and bring it to the liver to be excreted. So HDLs are good to have around. A healthy person will have more HDLs (good cholesterol) than LDLs (bad cholesterol).
Who's At Risk?
High cholesterol levels often run in families. You may be at risk if a close relative (parent, grandparent, or sibling) has been diagnosed.
That's why it's important to know your family medical history. When you know you're at risk, you can take steps to prevent disease.
Reducing The Risk
The best way to reduce your risk is by maintaining a healthy body weight, participating in regular physical activity, and eating foods low in saturated and trans fats. Our bodies carry cholesterol in both HDLs and LDLs. The types of fat we eat influence the balance between these good and bad cholesteroltransporters.
A good rule of thumb is to eliminate trans fats from your diet, reduce saturated fats, and replace them with unsaturated fats. However, for people whose bodies naturally make large amounts of cholesterol, medications like statins may be the only way to decrease their cholesterol levels.