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Your official guide to cholesterol

Cholesterol may not seem like a riveting topic, but understanding the waxy substance is a key to good health.

The basics: What is cholesterol?

“Cholesterol is made by the body, primarily by the liver,” says Druenell Linton, M.D., a cardiologist at Piedmont Heart.

Cholesterol gets a bad rap, but it’s necessary for body function, brain function, hormone production and food digestion.

“Your body is designed and equipped to make just the right amount of cholesterol,” says Dr. Linton. “Where we usually run into trouble is with our diets – we’re adding more cholesterol to [the body]. So if we didn’t eat any cholesterol, our bodies would still function normally.”

Why is my cholesterol elevated?

There are several factors that affect your cholesterol production:

  • Genetics. Either the brain doesn’t make the receptor to handle cholesterol (therefore leaving cholesterol high) or the body produces too much cholesterol. So, regardless of diet and exercise, some people will have high cholesterol that needs to be managed with medication.
  • Diet. Eating too many foods with saturated fat and trans fat can increase your cholesterol and put you at risk for heart disease.

Types of cholesterol

Cholesterol is measured in four ways.

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is known as the “good” cholesterol. Your HDL numbers should be above 50. HDL helps prevent plaque buildup in the arteries around the heart and prevents platelets from sticking together. You can raise this number by exercising, eating whole grains and not smoking.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the “bad” cholesterol. Your LDL number should be as low as possible, ideally below 130. LDL increases the chances of platelets sticking together and damage to the artery walls around the heart.
  • Triglycerides indicate the amount of fat in your blood. Triglycerides increase your risk of blockages in the arteries around the heart. Ideally, triglyceride levels should be below 150.
  • Total cholesterol is comprised of your LDL, HDL and 20 percent of your triglycerides. A total cholesterol of 300, for example, means at least one of the above numbers is elevated. Your physician can provide a breakdown of how total cholesterol stacks up.

“The good news about high cholesterol is that there are a lot of options to get you to your goal,” says Dr. Linton. “[These include] dietary and lifestyle modifications, or a number of different medications.”

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