Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body uses to protect nerves, make cell tissues and produce certain hormones. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. Your body also gets cholesterol directly from the food you eat (such as eggs, meats and dairy products). Too much cholesterol can have negative impacts on your health.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often called “bad” cholesterol. It delivers cholesterol to the body. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is often called “good” cholesterol. It removes cholesterol from the bloodstream.
This explains why too much LDL cholesterol is bad for the body, and why a high level of HDL cholesterol is good. For example, if your total cholesterol level is high because of a high LDL level, you may be at higher risk of heart disease or stroke. But, if your total cholesterol level is high only because of a high HDL level, you're probably not at higher risk.
Triglycerides are another type of fat in your blood. When you eat more calories than your body can use, it turns the extra calories into triglycerides. When you change your lifestyle to improve your cholesterol levels, you want to lower LDL, raise HDL and lower triglycerides.
Total cholesterol level
LDL cholesterol levels
HDL cholesterol levels
You can’t tell if you have high cholesterol without having it checked.
Men 35 years of age and older should have their cholesterol checked. Men and women 20 years of age and older who have high cholesterol or other risk factors for heart disease should also have their cholesterol checked. Ask your doctor how often you should your cholesterol checked.
A blood test known as a lipid panel is usually the way cholesterol is checked.
If you have high cholesterol, it may be necessary for you to make some lifestyle changes. If you smoke, quit. Exercise regularly. If you're overweight, losing just 5 to 10 pounds can help improve your cholesterol levels. Make sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish- all of which promote heart health. Avoid saturated and trans fats, which can raise cholesterol levels. Also limit your overall cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams per day and 200 milligrams if you have heart disease.
Depending on your risk factors, if healthy eating and exercise don't work to lower your cholesterol level, your doctor may suggest medicine.
While some cholesterol is needed for good health, too much cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk for heart disease, including heart attack or stroke.
If you have high cholesterol, your body may store the extra cholesterol in your arteries. Your arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Buildup of cholesterol in your arteries is known as plaque. Over time, plaque can become hard and make your arteries narrow. Large deposits of plaque can completely block an artery. Cholesterol plaques can also split open, leading to formation of a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood.
If an artery that supplies blood to the muscles in your heart becomes blocked, a heart attack can occur. If an artery that supplies blood to your brain becomes blocked, a stroke can occur.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff