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Good vs. Bad: Understanding your cholesterol levels

Posted September 14, 2020 by Andrea A Jopperi, DO

Cholesterol normally gets a bad rap, but is it really as bad as it sounds? 

Cholesterol is essential for your body — in healthy doses, of course. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver, which your body needs to build cells and produce certain hormones and vitamin D. 

Your body produces all the cholesterol it needs to function. The problem is many people don’t only get cholesterol from their liver. They also get high amounts of cholesterol from their diet and lifestyle, including:

High-fat foods: Red meat and full-fat dairy products, as well as highly processed foods, are common causes of high cholesterol.
Lack of exercise: Regular exercise helps to lower cholesterol by raising your HDL levels (good cholesterol) and reducing triglycerides in your blood.
Excess weight: Extra pounds increase cholesterol levels.
Smoking: Research shows quitting smoking increases your HDL levels.
Underlying health conditions: Diabetes and thyroid conditions can impact cholesterol levels. 

Some people also have a genetic component to their cholesterol. It can be modified with a healthy lifestyle, but medication also may be recommended.

So where should my cholesterol numbers be?

A cholesterol reading measures the different fats in your blood. Some are good and some are bad. If you have too much of the bad kind, you’re at risk of a heart attack.

LDL or Low-Density Lipoprotein is the bad kind of cholesterol and is basically plaque in your arteries. As it builds up, it can cause your arteries to narrow, which increases blood pressure and your risk for heart attacks and strokes. 

HDL or High-Density Lipoprotein is the good kind and helps clean up the bad kind from your arteries. HDL helps carry cholesterol to your liver, where it processes the excess cholesterol to remove it from the body. Therefore, higher levels are better to reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. They store excess energy from your diet. A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL cholesterol or low HDL cholesterol is linked with fatty buildups within the artery walls.
Ideally, your LDL should be 100 or lower, but 100-129 is considered healthy. Optimal levels for HDL should be above 55 for women and above 45 for men. Your triglycerides should be lower than 150. Your optimal cholesterol reading will depend on your age and risk of heart disease.

Keeping cholesterol in check

Oftentimes, high cholesterol is a silent disease and won’t cause any noticeable symptoms. So, the best way to keep track of your cholesterol is through regular checks. A cholesterol test is an easy blood test that checks your HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels. It is recommended to get a test early adulthood to rule out familial high cholesterol. After that, your doctor can tell you when to follow up based on your other risk factors.

Cholesterol is necessary for the body to function, but it can be dangerous if it gets out of control. Often, the first line of treatment is to make daily lifestyle changes. 

Exercising regularly (a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week) and eating heart-healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, are vital to reducing high cholesterol. 

If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, a cholesterol-lowering medication may help get cholesterol levels under control. 

Either way, knowledge is power. If you don’t know your numbers, get your cholesterol checked. If your cholesterol is high, it’s important to talk to your doctor so together you can develop a plan for getting your cholesterol in check.


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