Cholesterol

Cholesterol isn't entirely the health villain it's made out to be, its name darkly linked to heart attack, stroke, and other types of cardiovascular disease. Our bodies need cholesterol, which is a type of lipid (another name for fat) to make cell membranes, key hormones like testosterone and estrogen, the bile acids needed to digest and absorb fats, and vitamin D. Cholesterol is so important to the body that the liver and intestines make it from scratch.

What is "bad" about cholesterol isn't the substance itself — in fact, we can't live without it — but how much of it is in the bloodstream.

The body packages cholesterol in two main particles: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so-called good cholesterol. Too much LDL in the bloodstream helps create the harmful cholesterol-filled plaques that grow inside arteries. Such plaques are responsible for angina (chest pain with exertion or stress), heart attacks, and most types of stroke.

What causes a person's LDL level to be high? Most of the time diet is the key culprit. Eating foods rich in saturated fats, trans fats, and easily digested carbohydrates boost LDL. Genes are sometimes at the root of high cholesterol, and some medications can boost LDL.

If you have high cholesterol, making changes in your diet can help bring it down into the healthy range. Exercise can help boost the level of protective HDL. Several types of medication, notably the family of drugs known as statins, can powerfully lower LDL. Depending on your cardiovascular health, your doctor may recommend taking a statin.

Cholesterol Articles

Ask the doctor: Why does diabetes raise heart disease risk?

People with diabetes face a high risk of heart disease in part because they’re more likely to have other conditions linked to heart disease. But the high blood sugar levels characteristic of diabetes may also harm blood vessels and increase risk of blood clots. (Locked) More »

"Advanced" cholesterol testing: Is it for you?

Advanced cholesterol testing, which includes measuring particle number and size, isn’t necessary for most people. However, it may be helpful in deciding whether to prescribe statins for people at increased risk of heart disease. (Locked) More »

An avocado a day may keep cholesterol at bay

Eating a cholesterol-lowering diet that includes one avocado per day may lower levels of undesirable LDL cholesterol. The monounsaturated fats, as well as fiber and other compounds found in avocados, likely contribute to this beneficial effect. (Locked) More »

The latest on cholesterol testing

Even though national guidelines on managing cholesterol have shifted away from targeting specific cholesterol levels, tests that measure fats (lipids) in the blood, known as a lipid profile or panel, are still widely used and important. Adults should have a lipid profile done at least every five years. People who have abnormal lipid values or who take cholesterol-lowering medications likely need more frequent tests. The same applies to people with risk factors for heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or a family history of heart disease. (Locked) More »

Reduce your risk of silent strokes

Silent strokes occur without symptoms, yet have the potential to severely impair memory and brain health. A silent stroke is usually the result of a clot forming in a tiny artery supplying blood to a “silent” part of the brain. These areas don’t control vital functions, such as speech or walking, which is why the interruption of blood flow doesn’t result in obvious symptoms. But a person can experience multiple silent strokes, which can start to reveal themselves through memory lapses and mood changes. (Locked) More »

Thyroid hormone: How it affects your heart

Located at the base of the throat, the butterfly-shaped thyroid gland releases hormones that affect every organ in the body—especially the heart. Too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) slows the heart rate and may boost blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can cause the heart to beat harder and faster and may trigger abnormal heart rhythms and high blood pressure. A simple blood test can diagnose thyroid problems, and treatment may improve heart-related problems. More »

The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between

Image: vasata/Getty Images Why are trans fats bad for you, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats good for you, and saturated fats somewhere in-between? For years, fat was a four-letter word. We were urged to banish it from our diets whenever possible. We switched to low-fat foods. But the shift didn't make us healthier, probably because we cut back on healthy fats as well as harmful ones. More »

Eggs and your health

Eating up to an average of one egg per day can be part of a heart-healthy diet. Moderate egg consumption does not contribute significantly to total cholesterol and risk for heart attack or stroke. More »

How to lower your cholesterol without drugs

Dietary changes can reduce LDL cholesterol. Substitute polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats for trans fats and saturated fats, avoid refined grains and sugars, and eat three to five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. More »