What’s Good Cholesterol?

High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke, but cholesterol on its own isn’t the enemy. In fact, cholesterol is essential to your health. It enables your body to produce steroid hormones, digestive fluids (bile), and vitamin D.

Regularly monitoring your cholesterol is part of taking care of your heart health, and it’s important to understand the different types of cholesterol and what your numbers mean. 

Here at Metropolitan Cardiovascular Associates, cardiovascular physician Ayim Djamson, MD, is dedicated to helping patients keep their heart as healthy as possible.

Managing heart disease risk factors, which includes checking your cholesterol, is key to protecting your heart. 

What to know about cholesterol and heart disease

When too much cholesterol circulates in your bloodstream, it builds up on artery walls, causing them to narrow and harden over time. At worst, cholesterol can cause a partial or complete blockage of blood flow to the heart or brain.

While your body needs cholesterol for various functions, it needs only a small amount, and the liver makes enough of it to meet your body’s needs. Various diet and lifestyle factors contribute to elevated cholesterol.  

Beneficial vs. harmful cholesterol

While cholesterol is a key factor in artery-clogging plaque, not all types of cholesterol are created equally. Cholesterol itself is a waxy, fat-like substance that doesn’t dissolve in the blood. It’s packaged in substances called lipoproteins that carry cholesterol through the bloodstream. 

Each type of cholesterol contains a mixture of varying amounts of cholesterol, protein, and triglycerides. How cholesterol impacts your heart health depends on the type of cholesterol and its characteristics. Here’s what you should know about the “bad” and “good” cholesterol and fats circulating in your blood. 

Low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol)

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is known as “bad” cholesterol because it delivers cholesterol to your tissues, causing cholesterol to build up. It’s recommended that you keep your LDL cholesterol below 100 mg/dl. Higher levels are associated with an increased heart risk. 

High-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol)

Unlike LDL, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is a beneficial type of cholesterol that helps to remove LDL from your blood and artery walls and then carry it to the liver for elimination. It’s better to have a higher level of this “good” cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream. The recommendation is to aim for an HDL at or above 60 mg/dl.

Very-low-density lipoprotein

If you have heart disease risk factors like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, Dr. Djamson may estimate your level of very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). There is no direct test available to measure VLDL. 

Instead, a formula is used to estimate VLDL as a percentage of your triglycerides. VLDL is a form of cholesterol made by the liver and released into the bloodstream to transport triglycerides to tissues. High levels of VLDL are linked to a buildup of arterial plaque.

Triglycerides

Other fatty substances like triglycerides factor into your lipid profile. Triglycerides are a type of fat your body makes from excess calories. They’re also found in certain oils like butter and margarine. Most fats in your diet are in the form of triglycerides. Like other fatty substances circulating in your blood, triglycerides pose a risk when persistently elevated. 

Increasing good cholesterol

People who are overweight, have high blood pressure, or Type 2 diabetes tend to have low levels of good cholesterol in their blood. Since elevated levels of HDL protect your heart, Dr. Djamson assesses your cardiovascular risk and determines the most appropriate therapy to improve your cholesterol profile.

In addition to drug therapy, lifestyle changes are key to managing your cholesterol and improving your heart health. Physical activity lowers triglycerides and boosts HDL. 

If you aren’t very active, bumping up your physical activity is a good place to start in efforts to raise the level of good cholesterol in your blood. Exercise also promotes weight management, which protects your heart too. Adding just 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week can benefit HDL levels.

Avoiding excess alcohol consumption and quitting smoking if you’re a smoker are equally important to increasing HDL and promoting a healthier cholesterol profile.

Taking steps to protect your heart

Seeing a cardiologist is one of the best steps you can take in protecting your heart health. A cardiology specialist like Dr. Djamson can get you on the right track to improved cardiovascular health so you can live a long, healthy life. 

Talk to Dr. Djamson about your cholesterol and all other cardiovascular needs by contacting us to schedule a visit. 

We have three offices in Beltsville, Bowie, and Columbia, Maryland. You can also send a message to Dr. Djamson and the team via our website. 

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