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Understanding Cholesterol Problems: The Basics

What Are Cholesterol Problems?

Everyone's body needs cholesterol, but too much can spell trouble for some people. A soft fat-like substance, cholesterol aids vital bodily functions such as building new cells and producing hormones.

The body gets cholesterol in two ways: 80% of it is produced by the liver and the rest comes from your diet. Cholesterol is found in foods derived from animal products like meat, cheese, poultry, or fish.

Understanding Cholesterol

Find out more about cholesterol:

Basics

Symptoms

Diagnosis and Treatment

Prevention

Foods that don't contain animal products may contain another harmful substance called trans fats, which cause your body to produce more cholesterol. Also, foods with saturated fats cause the body to make more cholesterol. Foods high in sugar are also associated with developing higher cholesterol levels in the blood.

Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by attaching to certain proteins. The combination is called a lipoprotein. There are four different types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol in the blood:

  • High density lipoprotein (HDL) or "good cholesterol"
  • Low density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad cholesterol"
  • Very low density lipoproteins (VLDL), which are very bad forms of cholesterol.
  • Chylomicrons, which carry very little cholesterol but a lot of another fat called triglycerides.

The amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream is important because of its role in various cardiovascular diseases. The risk of developing these conditions is complex and depends not only on how much cholesterol but also what kind of cholesterol you have in your blood. Generally speaking, high levels of LDL -- the "bad cholesterol" -- are associated with increased risk of developing coronary heart disease; high levels of HDL -- or "good cholesterol" -- are associated with decreased risk.

LDL cholesterol collects in the walls of arteries, initiating "hardening of the arteries" or atherosclerosis. People with atherosclerosis are in turn vulnerable to heart failure, heart attack, stroke, and other problems caused by clogged blood vessels. Even so, some people who have high LDL cholesterol never actually get heart disease, and many heart attack victims do not have abnormally high cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol levels can increase with:

  • Diets high in saturated fats, trans fats, and sugar
  • Obesity
  • A sedentary lifestyle

Since no one can predict with certainty which people with high cholesterol will develop heart disease, play it safe and keep your cholesterol levels in check. The American Heart Association recommends that you eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Dietary control alone does not work for everyone; some people will also need to take medication to reduce their cholesterol levels.

Another factor to consider is triglycerides -- the form in which your body transports fat. In fact, the bulk of your body's fat is triglycerides. It's not clear whether high triglycerides alone increase your risk of heart disease, but many people with high triglycerides also have high LDL or low HDL levels, which do increase the risk of heart disease.

Having low cholesterol levels is not immediately harmful to the body, but it may indicate the presence of another medical condition that needs treatment (like hyperthyroidism, malnutrition, pernicious anemia, or sepsis).

WebMD Medical Reference

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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or
Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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