One question I am asked often by patients is, “What exactly is cholesterol, and how does it affect me?”
Cholesterol is a molecule that is made by the body naturally and is used in several important processes. This includes the production of cell walls, hormones, and Vitamin D, among others. Our bodies produce it on a daily basis and while it’s very necessary, like so many things, too much is unhealthy.
A good portion of the cholesterol in our bodies is actually made there, however some comes from our diet. Plants don’t contain a significant amount, however animal products do. Since we can’t genetically change how much we produce, a healthy diet low in animal fat is the best step most of us can take in keeping cholesterol levels safe. However, because some people naturally produce more cholesterol than others, medication is often required to maintain safe levels. I have even had patients with vegetarian diets who have levels outside the safe zone.
Why medication? We have learned over the years as we advance medically that higher levels of cholesterol are positively correlated with higher risk of heart disease through “clogging” of our arteries, both in the heart and the rest of the body. High cholesterol is directly linked to heart attacks, peripheral artery disease, hypertension, stroke, atherosclerosis, and even diabetes. We use several different types of medications which work in different ways, to keep the numbers in a healthy range when required.
What level is the goal? We typically combine 4 levels to determine a patient’s risk, as well as the need for and type of treatment. Total cholesterol levels are best under 200mg/dl. However, 3 other molecules are important to consider as they are directly involved in the metabolism of cholesterol.
HDL and LDL are actually molecules that transport cholesterol and triglycerides in the body, we use them a marker for treatment. High Density Lipoproteins (aka HDL) actually has a protective factor in higher numbers, so we like to see a value over 40 mg/dl. Low Density Lipoprotein (aka LDL) has a negative effect at higher numbers so we like to see it under 100mg/dl generally.
And last but not least, are triglycerides. Triglycerides are actually lipids, which is another naturally occurring molecule like cholesterol. It’s easiest to consider triglycerides as simply fat in your blood stream. Too much, and arteries begin to become compromised leading to the same diseases as mentioned earlier with cholesterol. We like to see Triglyceride levels under 150mg/dl.
The combination of the numbers is much more important than any individual number, so we generally check these as a group with a lab test known as a “Lipid Profile”. If levels are good, then it can be checked once a year safely. If levels aren’t desirable, it is often checked more frequently as changes are made to diet or medication.
I hope that this has helped to explain a bit about what cholesterol is, and why it’s important to keep the levels safe through diet if possible. And if not, through the help of your doctor. There are always many factors to consider when considering treatment. We would be happy to talk with you in person about this topic, or any other topic regarding your health, at our Convenient Care Clinic. Give us a call to schedule a visit!
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– Jeff Dowis, M.D.
Dr. Dowis received his medical degree from the University Health Sciences, followed by an internship at the Medical College of Georgia and a residency at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Dowis is a Major in the US Air Force Reserve and serves as the Chief Medical Officer to Mountain Lakes Medical Center. Growing up in Habersham County, Dr. Dowis understands the importance of ensuring quality medical care to our area and maintaining a community hospital.