Basics of Cholesterol

Having too much cholesterol in your body, or having your cholesterol levels high, increases the risk for heart disease and strokes. Cholesterol levels can sometimes be managed by lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, while other times they need medicine. If your doctor wants to talk about your cholesterol levels, start here to understand what is going on.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance that your body makes. It uses cholesterol to make hormones and digest food. You can also get cholesterol from foods such as eggs, meats, and cheese. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, and high levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.

What does high cholesterol mean? What are the risks?

High cholesterol means that there is more cholesterol in your body than your body needs, such as from eating lots of foods that have cholesterol in them. When there is extra cholesterol in your body, the cholesterol can build up in your blood vessels (called plaque) and make them smaller. Smaller blood vessels mean that it is harder for blood to get around your body, and your heart has to work harder. Your blood vessels can be blocked entirely, causing a heart attack.

How can I lower my cholesterol?

To prevent or lower high cholesterol, the everyday actions you take are crucial. You don’t need cholesterol in your diet, since your body makes all the cholesterol you need, so eating fewer high-cholesterol foods can help. Foods that are high in saturated fat are often high in cholesterol. A healthy diet, including limiting alcohol, is recommended.

Other everyday actions are to maintain or get to a healthy weight, get regular physical activity, and quit smoking.

Talk to your doctor about your cholesterol levels. It’s a simple blood test, often done at your annual physical, and can help you make a plan to maintain healthy cholesterol levels or to fix high cholesterol levels. Your doctor can help you make plans for actions for a healthier lifestyle, such as making a plan to lower your alcohol consumption or quit smoking or refer you to a dietitian so you can make a healthy eating plan.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)