Cholesterol 101 – Understanding the Basics

cholesterol moleculesThere is much information on the Internet regarding cholesterol.  So much so that people are often still confused about what purpose it serves and what LDL, HDL or Tryglycerides mean in clear and simple terms.  Conversations with friends and questions from readers tell me there is a need for clarity in understandable terms and not long explanations with a lot of medical jargon.  By the way, the US and some other countries use a different measuring system for calculating cholesterol than most of Europe.  Click here for more information.

Ok…here is the short version.

  • LDL – Think of this as a plaster (US-bandaid) to patch up a hole in a wall.
  • HDL – This is like a spatula/solvent that dissolves the plaster.
  • Triglycerides – This is a type of fat in your blood.  It is excess dietary fat that if not used up by the body gets stored as a trigyceride as a source of energy.

Short enough?

Here is the medium version with a bit more information:

  • Cholesterol is crucial for every cell of your body, especially the brain.  For the average person (meaning relatively fit to slightly overweight) artificially lowering it with drugs is not a good idea.  A person put on statins to lower it is often told they must be on it for the rest of their lives by doctors who unquestionably follow pharmaceutical companies ‘advice’ (read more about this here).
  • LDL –  (Low Density Lipid) there is no such thing as ‘bad’ cholesterol, which is a term that LDL has become associated with.  EXCESSIVE LDL is a problem but some  LDL is very important.  When inflammation occurs it causes a small tear or abrasion in the inner wall of the arteries allowing the blood to seep through to the middle lining of the artery whichs causes further irritation.  LDL is sent to patch up the weak spot..  The problem is that LDL is rather instable and can float around repatching patches or adhering elsewhere where it is not needed.
  • HDL – (High Density Lipid) This is the spatula or solvent that loosens LDL patches.  Sounds good, right? Yes and no.  When radical diets are used with the goal for rapid weight loss, which may have the side ef of lowering excessive LDL, too many of those patches may be loosened before the body can deal with it.  This can cause blockages in the arteries and fine blood vessels supplying the brain.

Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. Your body uses them for energy.

You need some triglycerides for good health. But high triglycerides might raise your risk of heart disease and may be a sign of metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is the combination of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, too much fat around the waist, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and high triglycerides. Metabolic syndrome increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

A blood test that measures your cholesterol also measures your triglycerides. For a general idea about your triglycerides level, compare your test results to the following:1

  • Normal is less than 150.
  • Borderline-high is 150 to 199.
  • High is 200 to 499.
  • Very high is 500 or higher.

What causes high triglycerides?

High triglycerides are usually caused by other conditions, such as:

  • Obesity.
  • Poorly controlled diabetes.
  • An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).
  • Kidney disease.
  • Regularly eating more calories than you burn.
  • Drinking a lot of alcohol.

Certain medicines may also raise triglycerides. These medicines include:

In a few cases, high triglycerides also can run in families.

What are the symptoms?

High triglycerides usually don’t cause symptoms.

But if your high triglycerides are caused by a genetic condition, you may see fatty deposits under your skin. These are called xanthomas (say “zan-THOH-muhs”).

How can you lower your high triglycerides?

You can make diet and lifestyle changes to help lower your levels.

  • Lose weight and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Limit animal fats and sugars in your diet.
  • Be more active.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Limit alcohol.

You also may need medicine to help lower your triglycerides. But your doctor likely will ask you to try diet and lifestyle changes first.

Your body gets upset when a flaw-a tear or nick-occurs in the artery’s inner lining because then the middle lining is exposed to the blood. So your body, like a handyman hired to patch up your drywall, rushes in with plaster to cover up the inner lining’s wounds.

Although one type of “plaster-cholesterol” has earned more bad press than child actors, the judgment isn’t really fair.

From Dr. Mehmet Oz:

Cholesterol is actually essential to your body’s functioning. The good or healthy kind of cholesterol is carried through your body by high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and acts as the spatula of your arterial system. Compact and powerful, it comes in, swoops through your arteries to try to take the extra plaster away.

The bad or lousy cholesterol, which is carried by low-density lipoprotein (LDL), is like a defective Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon. It’s big and puffy, unstable and prone to breaking up and scattering bits of cholesterol when it hits the walls of the artery.

When your LDL levels are high to begin with (maybe from your diet, or maybe from heredity) and you damage your arteries’ inner lining, your body gets carried away with plaster. In its zeal to heal, it starts covering up the damage with the “bad” cholesterol, slapping it on like plaster over a hole in a wall.

And that’s only the beginning because it has now stimulated the immune system to attract white-cell protectors to try to smooth out and calm the rotten cholesterol. Those, in turn, spill some of their toxic contents that normally attack enemy infections, which causes generalized inflammation. The inflammation builds up blister-sized spaces in the walls called foam cells, which increase the size of the plaque, or plaster, even more. That makes the artery surface rougher and triggers more inflammation, creating bulges and potholes in the wall.

Those big foamy cells get so greedy that they start to outgrow the blood supply. When that happens, some of them begin to die off from lack of blood. As they die, they become “irritable.” They have an electrical charge to them, similar to the electric shock you get sometimes while combing your hair. That charge, in turn, attracts sticky blood platelets, which like to travel in crowds. The problem with those platelets is that they can form clots in your arteries-and that can lead to a heart attack.

And there you have it.

Related posts:
Cholesterol – Benefits and Importance

Cholesterol – Major Marketing


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