The lipid cholesterol is a waxy substance that the body uses to make steroids, bile acid, and vitamin D. We get some of our cholesterol from our diet, but our body also produces a lot of it on its own.
Our liver and intestines make the most cholesterol, but all of our cells make some of it; cholesterol actually composes 30 percent of all of our cells' membranes. But what's the difference between "bad cholesterol" and "good cholesterol," and just why is this bad cholesterol so bad?
The two basic types of cholesterol are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL cholesterol is the type usually referred to as "bad" cholesterol. When too much LDL cholesterol is in our bloodstream, it combines with other substances to form plaque in our arteries. This plaque can build up and "harden" our arteries, interfering with our blood flow.
This hardening of the arteries, called "atherosclerosis," can in turn cause heart disease, which occurs when the heart cannot get enough blood and oxygen. This can lead to progressive heart failure or to a heart attack, which occurs when a clot of plaque breaks off and completely blocks blood flow to the heart.
If one of these clots instead blocks blood flow to a part of the brain, it could result in a stroke or a "transient ischemic attack," which is essentially a temporary mini-stroke. Blockages in other parts of the body can cause peripheral artery disease, which in its most severe form can result in tissue death and the need to amputate the affected area.
High cholesterol levels and atherosclerosis often have no symptoms until a severe blockage forms. By then, it may be too late. Luckily, the health supervillain that is LDL cholesterol has a built in archnemesis: HDL or "good" cholesterol. HDL cholesterol picks up excess LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream and takes it back to your liver, where it can then be broken down and removed from the body.
Another type of cholesterol, very low-density lipoprotein or VLDL, carries triglycerides, which the body uses to store fat. These triglycerides can also contribute to plaque buildup, which is why people who have high triglyceride levels as well as high cholesterol levels are at an even greater health risk.
Cholesterol levels can be measured via a blood test, and doctors recommend checking your cholesterol levels at least once every 5 years. You may want to check in more often if you have significant risk factors, such as if you are overweight or have a family history of cholesterol-related illnesses.
Smoking also increases your risk of artery disease by damaging blood vessels, and your body becomes less able to remove cholesterol as you age. Women are also at a lower risk than men during their reproductive years thanks to the protective effect of estrogen, but this benefit somewhat decreases after menopause.
If you're looking to lower your triglyceride and cholesterol levels, the most important things to avoid are saturated fat and trans fat. These are most abundant in fried food, fast food, processed meats, margarine, hydrogenated oils, full-fat dairy products, and baked goods; all things that the 123Diet's clean eating plan wisely advises you to stay far away from!
Foods that can help raise your good cholesterol level include fruits, especially apples, strawberries, and citrus; soy and soy-based food; fatty fish; avocados; and foods rich in fiber. Doing more exercise can also help lower your LDL cholesterol levels while raising your HDL.
High cholesterol can also sometimes be treated with drugs like statins, ezetimibe, niacin, and PCSK9 inhibitors. These medications, however, can be expensive and cause some nasty side effects, so the better path by far is to avoid having high cholesterol in the first place!