Understanding Cholesterol

Cholesterol_molecule_ballThe past twenty years have seen a great deal of misunderstanding about cholesterol. In order to talk intelligently with your medical professional and participate in your own health decisions, it is vital that you learn about the types and functions of cholesterol. The first thing to know is that cholesterol is a natural substance that is necessary to your health.

Cholesterol is insoluble in the blood, so it is carried throughout the body by lipoproteins, comprised of a fat, or lipid, and a protein. There are two types of cholesterol: low density (LDL) and high density (HDL).

LDL cholesterol is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol, because it helps to form plaques in the blood vessels. Plaque is a hard deposit that lines blood vessels and makes them thicker and less flexible, a condition called atherosclerosis. This causes narrowing of the blood vessels. If a blood clot forms and breaks off inside a blood vessel, it can prevent the flow of blood, which deprives tissues and organs of oxygen and caused premature aging. Heart attacks and strokes are also a potential result of this process.

HDL is the “good” cholesterol. The HDL cholesterol carries the LDL cholesterol to the liver, which breaks it down and excretes it from the body. Doctors now know that the higher your level of High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the healthier your heart and your body are.

You do not necessarily need to be concerned if your total cholesterol is high. However, high LDL can lead to arterial blockage and a lack of oxygen rich blood supply to vital organs of your body, such as the heart. Symptoms such as chest, abdominal, neck, back, jaw or arm pain, or weakness, shortness of breath and excessive sweating may be alerting you to a potential heart attack.

Similarly, a stroke can occur when arteries that supply oxygen to the brain are narrowed, resulting in a transient ischemic attack (a mini stroke) or a full stroke. A mini stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted for less than 24 hours. The symptoms are numbness, confusion, visual disturbances and loss of balance. When the blood supply stops completely and a full stroke happens, symptoms are similar, but they can lead to permanent disability and even death.

Work with your doctor to monitor your LDL and HDL cholesterol, and if tests indicate a problem, ask for a referral to a cardiologist. He or she may order more in-depth testing, such as a Berkeley or Boston heart health profile.