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The Basics of Cholesterol

Have you been diagnosed with high cholesterol? Is lowering your cholesterol a goal? The first step is to find out: What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver and other cells and found in certain foods, such as food from animals, like dairy products, eggs, and meat.

The body needs some cholesterol in order to function properly: for cells construction, to produce hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help to digest fat. But the body needs only a limited amount of cholesterol to meet its needs. When too much is present health problems such as heart disease may develop.

When too much cholesterol is present, plaque (a thick, hard deposit) may form in the body's arteries narrowing the space for blood to flow to the heart. Over time, this buildup causes atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) which can lead to heart disease.

When not enough oxygen-carrying blood reaches the heart chest pain - called angina - can result. If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by total blockage of a coronary artery, the result is a heart attack. This is usually due to a sudden closure from a blood clot forming on top of a previous narrowing.

Cholesterol travels through the blood attached to a protein - this cholesterol-protein package is called a lipoprotein. There are low density lipoproteins (LDL) - also called "bad" cholesterol, can cause buildup of plaque on the walls of arteries; high density lipoproteins (HDL) - also called "good" cholesterol, helps the body get rid of bad cholesterol in the blood; very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) - is similar to LDL cholesterol; triglycerides - are stored in fat cells throughout the body.

A variety of factors can affect your cholesterol levels. They include: saturated fat and cholesterol in the food you eat, overweight, lack of physical activity, age and gender (as we get older, cholesterol levels rise, before menopause, women tend to have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age), diabetes, heredity, certain medications and medical conditions.

Everyone over the age of 20 should get their cholesterol levels measured at least once every five years.

A few simple changes can help lower your cholesterol and risk for heart disease: eat low-cholesterol foods (average daily cholesterol intake to less than 200-300 milligrams), quit smoking (smoking lowers HDL ("good") cholesterol levels, this trend can be reversed), regular exercise (not less than 30 minutes daily), taking medication every day if prescribed by your doctor.

High cholesterol doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be prescribed special medication. That depends on your cholesterol level and having risk factors for heart disease. It is important to remember that cholesterol-lowering medicine is most effective when combined with a low-cholesterol diet.

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