Why Check Your Cholesterol Levels?

Why check your cholesterols levels? Are they really that important?

by Dan Bayliss, RN

Cholesterol is a substance that looks like soft candle wax. Cholesterol often gets a bad rap for causing heart attacks and stroke. While this is true, cholesterol is needed to aid many normal bodily functions.

Eating chicken, beef, eggs, dairy or other animal products can add to your cholesterol levels. When your body has too much cholesterol, it parks itself in your arteries, especially the arteries in your heart. When the cholesterol starts preventing normal blood flow through your arteries, the risk of a heart attack and/or stroke is increased. The good news is that exercise and eating “cleaner” foods will help maintain normal cholesterol levels, thus reducing your risk for having future health problems related to cholesterol.

Most medical experts recommend having a complete lipid profile done at least once a year. If levels are higher than normal or you have a family history of high cholesterol, test every 3-6 months until levels are back within normal range. The test is easy, similar to sticking your finger for a blood sugar screening. A small amount of blood is put into a cartridge and run through an analyzer to get what’s called a “lipid panel” of four main numbers: 1) cholesterol, 2) HDL (good) cholesterol, 3) LDL (bad) cholesterol, and 4) triglycerides. Some machines will measure your blood sugar as well.

Total Cholesterol (TC) is a measure of the total amount of “good” and “bad” cholesterol in your blood at a given time. The recommended range for Total Cholesterol is less than 200. Exercise and better eating habits will help lower your total cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of future heart disease.

The “good” cholesterol is called High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. It’s good cholesterol because it removes excess cholesterol in your arteries, moving it to the liver for digestion and elimination from the body. The higher the HDL, the better. Exercise and better eating habits will help maintain or improve your HDL levels.

An HDL >60 or higher is good and considered ideal for preventing heart related problems. An HDL of 40 or lower is associated with a higher risk of heart problems.

The “bad” cholesterol is called Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. This is the kind of cholesterol that most doctors worry about with their patients. This is the kind that dumps fatty cholesterol in your arteries, commonly called atherosclerosis, which can cause decreased blood flow in your coronary arteries and eventually lead to a heart attack. ONLY better eating habits will help improve LDL cholesterol—exercise only will not change your LDL.

An LDL of less than 130 is recommended. If you have a personal history of coronary heart disease or diabetes, or if you have multiple risk factors (obesity, sedentary lifestyle, etc.) your LDL cholesterol is recommended to be below 100.

Triglycerides (TRG), like cholesterol, circulate in your bloodstream, but they are stored in body fat and used when your body needs extra energy. That might sound like a good thing, but having a consistently elevated TRG has been shown to increase the risk for heart disease as well. While your TRG level can be significantly affected by how recently you’ve eaten, total cholesterol and HDL are only slightly affected. Exercise and better eating habits will help control your TRG levels.

After eating, your triglyceride levels increase. If your body processes the fat efficiently, the level of triglycerides will decrease naturally. Your fasting triglyceride level (not having eaten within the past 8-12 hours) should be below 150.

Improving your lifestyle habits, including regular exercise and healthy eating, has a huge impact on your cholesterol levels and will help with other areas of your health, too. Knowing these numbers each year will be of benefit to you and your physician as he or she guides you on proper interventions.

To learn more about cholesterol or having your cholesterol checked, talk with one of our registered nurses.