1. Woods, Anne Dabrow MSN, RN, CRNP, ANP-BC

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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood and in all your body's cells. It helps protect nerves, makes cell tissues, and produces certain hormones. But if too much cholesterol builds up in your blood vessels, it can block blood flow and cause a heart attack or brain attack (stroke). That's why high cholesterol is bad for your health.


Your liver makes all of the cholesterol your body needs each day; the rest comes from the food you eat. You can find out whether you have high cholesterol with a simple blood test. Don't eat or drink for 9 to 12 hours before the test. A total cholesterol level under 200 mg/dL is best. A total cholesterol level over 200 mg/dL increases your risk of heart attack or brain attack.


What are bad and good cholesterol?

Bad cholesterol, also called low-density lipoprotein (LDL), carries cholesterol and other fats that your liver makes to your body tissue. If it builds up in blood vessels, LDL can cause heart disease and other health problems.


Your LDL level should be below 130. If you have diabetes or a possible heart problem, your healthcare provider may want your LDL level even lower. Follow your healthcare provider's advice for lowering LDL.


Good cholesterol is also called high-density lipoprotein (HDL). This type carries LDL from your tissues back to your liver where your body gets rid of it. Your HDL level should be at least 40 for men and at least 50 for women; 60 or more is even better. The higher your HDL level, the safer you are from heart disease.


What are triglycerides?

Your body can't use all of the fats and carbohydrates you eat, so it stores some as triglycerides. High levels can raise your risk of heart disease. Your triglyceride level should be less than 150. Limiting carbohydrates to 45% to 50% of your diet can help lower your triglyceride levels.


How can I lower my risk of heart attack or brain attack?

Take these simple steps to keep your good and bad cholesterol at safe levels and protect your health.


Watch what you eat. Try to eat foods that are low in saturated fat and low in cholesterol. Less than 7% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, and you should eat less than 200 mg of dietary cholesterol each day (check nutrition labels on the foods you eat). Try using a cholesterol-lowering margarine instead of butter or regular margarine. Eat only enough calories to maintain a healthy weight; your healthcare provider can help you come up with a weight loss plan if you need to lose weight.


Eat 20 to 30 grams of soluble fiber every day. Foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds can help lower LDL.


Get moving. Take part in activities that raise your heart rate, such as walking, running, swimming, biking, or dance classes. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most or all days of the week. If you're overweight or have been inactive, talk with your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program. Losing just 5 to 10 pounds can lower your LDL and triglyceride levels.


Don't smoke. If you need help breaking the habit, ask your healthcare provider about some techniques or treatments that can help you quit. If others in your house smoke, ask them to quit with you. It's easier to quit if people around you do too, and you won't be exposed to secondhand smoke.


Take your medicine. If diet and exercise aren't enough, you may need medicine to help get your cholesterol levels in the best range possible. Your healthcare provider will decide which medicine is right for you. You may need to take more than one type to get your cholesterol under control.