According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 102 million Americans have unhealthy cholesterol levels above 200 mg/dl.
More than 35 million of these people have levels above 240 mg/dl, which is considered high and puts them at risk for heart disease. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to knowing your cholesterol numbers.
Diet plays a role (about 25%), but high cholesterol is a complex issue that also involves genetics, lifestyle and environment. While it can help, many times it’s not as simple as cutting out bacon, eggs and red meat to lower your cholesterol.
Having healthy cholesterol levels is a tricky balance. Too much wreaks havoc on your health, but too little impacts other important bodily functions. Cholesterol is responsible for maintaining healthy cell membranes. It’s also necessary for producing hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, adrenaline, vitamin D and cortisol.
Your medical practitioner may talk to you about low-density lipoprotein and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The best way to understand how these guys work is with an analogy. Imagine your bloodstream is a highway, and the cars on that highway are LDL and HDL lipoproteins. Inside the cars, cholesterol and fats are driven to their destinations around the body. The medical community believes too many LDL “cars” on the highway is unhealthy.
LDL is typically referred to as the “bad cholesterol” because if it’s too high, you’re more likely to have inflammation that can result in a narrowing and hardening of the arteries, which impacts heart function and health. However, LDL is essential for healthy cells and hormone production. HDL, on the other hand, is celebrated as the “good cholesterol” because it helps lower LDL cholesterol when it’s too high.
Triglycerides are another type of fat typically measured with cholesterol but function differently. When you eat more calories than your body can use, it converts them into triglycerides and stores them in your fat cells as an energy source. If this happens regularly, your triglyceride levels can put you at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke.
The digestive system uses cholesterol to produce bile, which helps your body digest nutrients. If there’s too much cholesterol in the bile, the excess forms into crystals and eventually into hard stones in your gallbladder.
The brain uses cholesterol to create and protect nerve cells that let the brain communicate with the body. If cholesterol is too high, bad things happen, and instead of protecting the brain, it can lead to a stroke.
A healthy balance of cholesterol will support your body instead of damaging it. Knowing your numbers can empower you to improve your health and lower your risk for heart disease. Along the way, you’ll also enjoy a better functioning brain, better hormone production and better digestion.
Fran Sutherlin is a local registered dietitian, health coach, speaker and owner of Sustainable Nutrition in Durango and Bayfield. She can be reached at 444-2122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.