Making Sense of Cholesterol and Heart Disease

Posted on: 15 April 2015


How bad is bad cholesterol and why does your body still need it? Why is too much good cholesterol bad for you? Understanding cholesterol, why your body needs it and why it can kill you, can be confusing. It's all about balance. Here is how cholesterol contributes to your health and heart disease.

How Your Body Gets and Uses Cholesterol

Your body uses cholesterol in your cell walls to produce vitamin D and various hormones. It is also used to create the bile acids responsible for digesting fat in your diet.

You get cholesterol in two ways. It's in the meat and dairy products that you eat. When you don't have enough cholesterol in your diet, your body can manufacture it. Your liver produces substances called lipoproteins which are broken down further into cholesterol. When you go into your family doctor for a cholesterol screening, the lipoproteins are what they are testing for.

It's All About Balance

There are two lipoproteins that must be in balance in your body for good health. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) work together to fuel your cells. Your HDL, referred to as good cholesterol, offsets the side effects of your LDL, or bad cholesterol. One side effect of high bad cholesterol is the development of plaque on your blood vessel walls. This creates high blood pressure and heart disease. You are at a higher risk of a heart attack and stroke with high bad cholesterol.

What Creates the Imbalance?

There are a few factors that raise your risk of high cholesterol that you can't control:

  • Genetics: A family history of high cholesterol puts you at a higher risk for problems.
  • Gender: Men develop high cholesterol more often than women.
  • Age: The aging body has more difficulty keeping the HDL and LDL levels balanced.

Lifestyle choices influence cholesterol levels:

  • diets high in saturated fat
  • obesity and low physical activity levels
  • untreated diabetes

Smoking has also been shown to reduce your good cholesterol levels, putting you at higher risk of heart and circulation problems.

Treating High Cholesterol Before You Develop Heart Disease

When your doctor does a cholesterol screening, they will tell you how far apart your good and bad cholesterol levels are. This determines how aggressive you need to treat the problem so you don't develop heart disease. A minor imbalance can be corrected by a change in diet and increasing your exercise levels.

A more serious imbalance requires a number of changes to get your cholesterol under control:

  • use of a prescription medication to raise the good cholesterol level and lower the bad cholesterol level
  • limit red meat in your diet and eat more chicken, pork, and fish
  • increase exercise to improve circulation
  • stop smoking to allow your good cholesterol to return to normal levels

For seriously high cholesterol levels, the medication alone is not enough to keep the balance intact. You'll need to make some different lifestyle choices to prevent high cholesterol from causing a heart attack or stroke. Talk to a professional like Green & Seidner Family Practice for more information.