Summary: What is your cholesterol? What does that number mean and what can you do to lower it?

Once a year we go to our doctors’ office, roll up our sleeves, and allow our blood to be drawn. What is contained in those vials can tell an awful lot about us: how our thyroid is functioning, whether or not we’re producing enough red blood cells, if we’re sporting an otherwise unnoticed infection, how our liver’s holding up, and the ever popular cholesterol count.

Maybe you’ve been eating a lot of red meat, sucking up the creamy desserts, or overloading on the yummy breakfasts laden with bacon and sausage, but that number might make you a little nervous. Especially if it comes in at over 200, where your cholesterol level should top out if you’re a healthy individual. But what does that number mean and what can you do to lower it?

Cholesterol is a fatty molecule 80% of which manufactured by the liver (the remaining 20% we get through our diets) and is used for cell strength and shape. It also regulates our secondary sex hormones and provides an important lining to our nerve fibers. The good thing is that we need very little cholesterol to maintain these functions. Unfortunately, many of us have far more than we need. When this happens it can lead to heart disease, so it’s very important that you know what is bad cholesterol, what is good cholesterol (yes, there is such a thing!), and how to lower and maintain proper cholesterol levels.

First of all, your cholesterol level is comprised of your level of lipoproteins, which are a combination of fats and proteins. What makes them different is their densities. Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) are the ones to

watch out for. These lipoproteins are the ones responsible for atheroscerotic plaque, or to put it more simply, the artery cloggers. These lipoproteins cling to the walls of the arteries and then cling to each other until the arteries are blocked and blood can no longer pass though. When your doctor talks to you about lowering your cholesterol what she’s really talking about is lowering your “bad” cholesterol, or your LDL.

High-density lipoproteins (HDLs) are what is commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol. HDLs are responsible for removing cholesterol – good and bad – from the arteries and returning to the liver where it can be used to perform its proper functions. Think of HDLs as a flush: they move through the arteries and sweep out all the cholesterol they can. So if your HDL is very high it can counter balance a slightly high LDL. In fact, some doctors say that if your cholesterol is slightly over 200, yet you have an inordinately high HDL that lowering your cholesterol would actually cause harm because most likely all you would lower is your HDL.

So what do you do if you have to lower your cholesterol? Well, there are medications, but unless your cholesterol level is high enough to be life threatening your doctor will probably want you to try a more conventional approach. You’ll want to start a diet of whole grains, fruits and veggies, cut out saturated and hydrogenated fats, cheeses, and of course you should start an exercise routine if you don’t have one already. If after six months your cholesterol hasn’t budged, then you and your doctor may decide that one of the many cholesterol-lowering medications might be right for you.