What is cholesterol, and is it all bad? What's the difference between LDL and HDL cholesterol? What are the healthy or normal cholesterol levels you should strive for?
In this article, I'll explain what happens when your cholesterol levels aren't normal, as well as some of the ways to manage them, so that you can be better educated and proactive where your health is concerned, and maybe even extend your life.
First of all, cholesterol is a waxy substance found in cells in all parts of the body. And no, it is not all bad. In fact, cholesterol is necessary for building and regenerating cells. It also insulates nerves and produces hormones in the body. The key is maintaining normal levels.
Where does cholesterol come from? About 75% of the cholesterol in our bodies is manufactured in the liver, and the other 25% comes from food, mostly meat and dairy products. If your liver produces too much cholesterol, that is when the levels become abnormal or unhealthy, and a method for bringing them back in balance becomes a necessity in order to preserve cardiovascular health.
This is especially important in people with diabetes, or metabolic syndrome (sometimes referred to as pre-diabetes.) Unhealthy cholesterol levels, when combined with weight gain and increased blood pressure, can lead to all kinds of health challenges.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
Notice the plural, because it is not only total cholesterol or just the bad cholesterol number that is important. Complete cholesterol care implies being aware of all the numbers.
So what are the numbers you should know that make up the complete cholesterol picture?
First is the LDL or bad cholesterol. This is the component that when it becomes elevated, causes buildup on the walls of the arteries. As this buildup hardens, it becomes plaque, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Science is proving that this buildup starts to develop in late teens and early twenties, and continues progressively as we age.
Of course as this buildup continues, it starts to narrow the opening in the arteries, restricting blood flow and raising blood pressure. Left unchecked, it can continue until it ruptures which causes a clot to form, totally cutting off the flow of blood.
If this clot is in the area leading to the heart, it is a heart attack. If it is in the arteries leading to the brain, that is a stroke. Both are considered cardiovascular disease.
LDL levels of greater than 190 are considered dangerous. 160 to 189 is considered poor, 130 to 159 is fair, and readings less than 129 are considered healthy. Some doctors are suggesting levels be below 100, and recent research is showing that if we can reduce our LDL to less than 70, we can actually start to reverse the plaque buildup.
The next number to be aware of is HDL, or the good cholesterol, which reduces your risk of CVD. In fact, your HDL number is becoming much more important because research has shown that for every 1% you reduce your LDL or bad cholesterol, you get about a 2% reduction in cardiovascular risk. But for every 1% you increase your HDL, you get a 3% reduction in risk. What should your HDL be? Healthy levels for men are above 40, and for women, it should be above 50.
Total Cholesterol or TC is the addition of your LDL, HDL and a component known as VLDL. Healthy levels are anything under 200. Another important number to be aware of is your cardiovascular risk ratio. This number is determined by dividing Total Cholesterol by HDL. This number should be below 5, with the optimal amount of 3.5 or lower.
Where do triglycerides come from? Fats consumed in our diet, or made in the body from carbohydrates, cause triglycerides in the blood. Some calories are converted to triglycerides and move into the fat cells for storage. So how do those numbers stack up?
Triglyceride levels of less than 150 are considered acceptable. Levels from 150 to 199 indicate moderate risk, 200 to 499 indicate high risk, and levels in excess of 500 indicate extreme high risk.
If it's confusing to remember what's good and what's not, an easy way to remember the different parts of the total picture is "L" stands for "lethal" LDL, "H" stands for "healthy" HDL, and "T" stands for "treacherous" triglycerides.
METHODS FOR DEALING WITH UNHEALTHY CHOLESTEROL
There are different methods a person can use for improving one's cholesterol levels. The most widely known is through the use of special cholesterol lowering prescription drugs called "statins". Statins such as Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor, and others represent nationally a 25 Billion Dollar per year treatment option. They have proved themselves effective at lowering the LDL segment of the cholesterol picture, however they do very little to reduce triglycerides or raise the HDL.
Besides, statins sometime carry very significant side effects, and therefore some people can't take them. What are some of these documented side effects?
The Statin Effects Study concluded that the top two are possible liver and muscle damage. However, there are also lesser known effects such as sudden memory loss, increase in eye cataract risk, suppresses the body's natural immune function, increased cancer risk, kidney and nerve damage, depletes CoQ10 levels (necessary for healthy heart function), sleep disturbance, blood sugar or blood pressure changes, and sexual dysfunction.
According to the drug manufacturers, only an insignificant number of patients are affected by these side effects. But if you're one of them, is it "insignificant" for you? What you will hear more and more from the drug companies, is that they also will admit that just lowering the LDL is not enough.
Combination therapy will become the new buzz word. It means adding additional drugs to raise the good cholesterol, or lower triglycerides or blood sugar. Of course, it's highly likely that these additional drug additives will have their own set of additional side effects.
In fact, reports on the recent results of a clinical study by one of the leading pharmaceutical company's combinations to try to raise the HDL led to "pulling the plug" on the whole experiment. Why, you ask? According to the report, an "unacceptable number of people died" while taking the combination therapy. Makes me wonder what number of people would be "acceptable".
Do we see increased costs and co-pays in our futures? I believe you can bank on it. Some people feel, and I'm one of them, that even the cheapest co-pay is more than they're willing to risk their quality of life for.
So are there other, safer alternatives for you? The answer is yes. In fact, according to the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) guidelines for healthcare providers, statin drugs should not be the first treatment option offered. According to these guidelines, Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) should be used as a first approach.
What are some of the features of TLC? Increase of soluble fiber, regular exercise, and weight reduction are the main ones. When it comes to diet, watch your fat intake, and eat more fruits and vegetables.
In addition to soluble fiber, other methods that can control cholesterol levels are the use of plant sterols or stanols, and a natural component called policosanol, from sugar cane, which blocks the enzyme in the liver that produces cholesterol. Statins block the same enzyme; however, the difference is that the policosanol does not damage the liver. Also ancient Chinese medicine has used a particular extract from the chrysanthemum plant to help in the breakdown of cholesterol.
If you're concerned about safety and effectiveness, choose a natural solution with solid clinical evidence, that incorporates multiple methods, and raises HDL in addition to lowering LDL.
Be proactive in your own health, be educated on your cholesterol situation, make the right lifestyle choices, and you'll improve your chances of living longer.
Additional information on lowering cholesterol can be found in "Your Guide to Lowering Cholesterol with TLC" by the US Nat'l Institutes of Health. NIH Publication 06-5235