What is the normal level of cholesterol?

What is cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance (or lipid) found in animal tissue and fat. Lately, a lot of medical attention has focussed on it and you may have heard health professionals talk about it in relation to heart disease. Certainly, understanding the role of cholesterol in the body can help you form a more effective plan for taking care of your arteries and ultimately, your heart.

So what exactly does it do?

It’s true that having high levels of a certain kind of cholesterol can increase your risk of getting heart disease. But not all cholesterol is “bad”. There are actually two kinds floating around your body. They’re known as HDL and LDL and they effectively play “good cop” and “bad cop” in the annals of your arteries.

LDL cholesterol

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad cop”. It’s a particle made by the liver that carries cholesterol around in the blood. It’s commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol” because high LDL levels can clog up arteries, leading to cardiovascular disease. But it’s not really the cholesterol itself that’s bad, it’s how and where it’s being transported, and in what amounts.

In fact, LDL poses a risk for heart problems only when it becomes oxidised. As that happens, white blood cells called monocytes turn into others called macrophages. They start absorbing large amounts of cholesterol and sticking to artery walls. At the same time, they also pump out potent oxidants (free radicals) which harm the body and cause even more oxidation. The fat-engorged macrophages look “foamy” so they’re called “foam cells”. Surgeons find these in the kind of artery lesions that cause cardiovascular problems.

In addition, the macrophages eventually die, flooding all their cholesterol into the blood stream, where it accumulates in large pools.

HDL Cholesterol

The other kind of cholesterol is the high-density lipoprotein (HDL). It’s the “good cop” because it seems to remove “bad” cholesterol from the body’s tissues and carries it back to the liver, where it’s broken down.

That’s why having a high level of HDL seems to offer the body protection against cardiovascular disease. About one-third to a quarter of blood cholesterol is carried by the “good cholesterol” HDL.

Low HDL levels and heart disease

Men tend to have noticeably lower HDL levels, with smaller size and lower cholesterol content, than women. Perhaps its no coincidence that men also have an increased incidence of heart disease caused by clogged arteries.

In fact, anyone with reduced levels of HDL has an increased risk of early coronary artery disease, but doctors only recently recognised the role HDL plays in cardiovascular problems. They didn’t realise that even if a person’s total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels are normal, having a low HDL count is dangerous.

Even though they now know that low HDL cholesterol levels are bad news, doctors still tend to tell their patients to reduce their levels of “bad” cholesterol, and forget to help them raise the “good” cholesterol.

Over-prescription of statins

A prime example of this is the over-prescribing of statins, a drug that can reduce cholesterol. Unfortunately, it only works for some patients and may be doing nothing for others (especially women and older people), meaning they’re paying out and suffering side-effects needlessly. This is a classic example of the failure of prescription drugs. It’s a pity doctors take this approach, because a high number of people with normal total cholesterol levels have reduced HDL levels, and so they’re still at increased risk for heart disease.

Why don't doctors give us all the facts?

Why do doctors not recommend raising “good” cholesterol levels? Partly because LDL (“bad”) cholesterol drew early researchers' attention more than did HDL.

Pharmaceutical companies also made a lot of money from making drugs that lower LDL, so they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

There’s also an absence of effective, safe, and well-tolerated medicines which increase HDL. Not only that, but both health care professionals and the public have been educated for years about how to lower LDL levels.

To re-educate everyone at this stage would take a lot of effort and expense.

What you can do to increase your HDL levels?

Fortunately, you can take steps to increase your HDL levels without resorting to prescription drugs.

Lifestyle changes will have a huge impact: take up aerobic exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, cut down on trans fatty acids in your diet, increase your intake of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (canola oil, avocado oil, or olive oil, for example) and add at least two daily servings of fibre (oats, fruits, vegetables and legumes).

Homocysteine -what is it?

You can also help yourself by keeping your levels of homocysteine down. It’s an amino acid that’s produced as a normal part of metabolism, but high levels are increasingly being linked to heart problems, stroke, kidney disease, eye problems, erectile dysfunction, and dementia in later life.

Fortunately, some of the excess homocysteine may be used to create cysteine, which is then converted into glutathione. Glutathione is an important and powerful antioxidant and is the body’s best anti-ageing agent.

A low glutathione level has been linked to an increased risk of death from all common causes, so the key to optimal health may be to keep the homocysteine level down and the glutathione level up. Luckily, we can now do that simply by taking a supplement.

Getting the right balance through nutrition

In fact, the whole problem of keeping cholesterol levels balanced may be neatly addressed through taking a good look at what you eat and which good-quality supplements you take.

Research shows that you can significantly reduce your chances of getting coronary heart disease by taking vitamin E supplements. That’s because vitamin E is an antioxidant, so it helps prevent the oxidization that leads to artery clogging.

You can also benefit from taking another antioxidant in the form of vitamin C, because a number of studies show it may reduce illness and death from several major diseases, including (in men) throat and stomach cancer. While you’re at it, why not take a supplement that includes vitamin B2 (riboflavin). It helps metabolism, energy production, growth, and reproduction. Most importantly, it has antioxidant properties, aids glutathione production, activates vitamin B6 and lowers your risk of heart disease. Selenium is another team player in this list of “super” antioxidants, as are bioflavonoids (found especially in grape seed extract ) and these can only help your efforts to balance your cholesterol levels and protect your heart.

Medical references 126,127,128,129,130,131,132,133,134,135,136,137,138,139

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