What is Cholesterol?

The fatty substance floating around your bloodstream is called Cholesterol, in small amounts it is pretty harmless. However, bad cholesterol, also known as low density lipoprotein (LDL), is associated with clogging your arteries at increased levels. It is the clogging of the arteries which poses big risks to our health, increasing the chances of suffering from health conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.

Knowing the numbers behind Cholesterol

The thing about cholesterol is you cannot see your levels. Therefore, if LDL (bad) cholesterol levels are high there are rarely any physical symptoms. The way to find out your cholesterol levels is to have a blood test and have your lipid profile determined. The lipid profile gives an idea of the risk cholesterol poses to an individual’s health.

LDL (bad) cholesterol, on its own increases the risk of developing adverse health states but mixed with other conditions high levels can cause an increased risk of acquiring long term disorders such as cardiovascular disease.

In the UK, cholesterol and triglyceride levels are measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/L) of blood.

Cholesterol and Triglycerides

Cholesterol
As already mentioned cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance used by the body to ensure the efficient function of the cells. It is also used to make hormones, bile and vitamin D.

Triglycerides
Triglycerides are a type of fat used by the body to store energy and provide energy to the muscles. Usually small amounts of triglycerides are found in the blood. However, having high levels of triglycerides with high LDL cholesterol poses a greater risk of developing heart disease than just a high level of LDL. The recommended level for triglycerides is 1.7 mmol/L.

The Cholesterol Test

Your doctor will recommend a blood test based on an assessment. If you are advised to have one it is a simple procedure.

A blood sample is taken, either by your GP or by using an at-home blood test. The sample is used to determine the amount of bad cholesterol (LDL) circulating in the blood, as well as good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein or HDL) and triglycerides. The test shouldn’t take any longer than 10 minutes.

NICE guidelines no longer require fasting for a cholesterol test, as variance in results has been shown to be statistically insufficient.

So, what do the numbers mean?

The easiest way to think about your cholesterol levels is like this:

  1. HDL (good) cholesterol should be higher
  2. LDL (bad) cholesterol should be lower

However, the Government and the National Health Service (NHS) have recommended cholesterol level parameters, with their target cholesterol levels being:

Total Cholesterol

Function: This is the measurement of HDL, LDL and other fat elements
Measurement Range: ≤ 5.0 mmol/L

High Density Lipoprotein (HDL)

Function: Transports cholesterol away from tissues and to the liver where it can be excreted.
Measurement Range Men: ≥ 1.0 mmol/L
Measurement Range Women: ≥ 1.2 mmol/L

Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL)

Function: Transports cholesterol to the tissues where it can be used for a variety of functions. Too much can be harmful.
Measurement Range: ≤ 3.0 mmol/L

What’s My Risk?

Once the results of a cholesterol test have been analysed and calculated, a level of risk for conditions such as heart disease and stroke can be determined. Levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream are not the only results which are taken into account when your risk is ascertained. Body mass index, a measurement of weight in relation to height, weight, age, sex and other medical conditions are also all used to determine this risk.

However, even if your cholesterol levels are high there are many changes you can make to reduce your risk of developing medical complications. Changes to your diet, exercise regime and quitting smoking are all beneficial ways to lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

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Having always been intrigued by how body’s work, both in their day to day functions and also when things go wrong, Leanne is pursuing her passion for health. By combining her undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science and a Masters in Science communication with her love for writing, she is passing on her knowledge to Health Hub readers. Leanne strongly believes that science and health are something that should be talked about more and she hopes her articles will enable such conversations.