Cholesterol is a naturally-occurring substance in the body, but the very mention of it can strike fear in the hearts of diabetics. A little knowledge can go a long way toward dispelling fears associated with cholesterol.
What is Cholesterol?
According to the American Heart Association Web site, cholesterol is “a soft, fat-like, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in all your body’s cells.” It is a member of a group of chemical compounds known as lipids, or fats—although cholesterol is not synonymous with fat. The two are different in that cholesterol cannot be used by the body as a source of energy, like fat is burned for energy. Cholesterol is used in other body processes like the production of cell membranes, some hormones, vitamin D, and bile. The latter is the largest use of cholesterol.
Cholesterol is found in the blood. However, because it is a lipid, it does not dissolve in blood. Certain proteins, called lipoproteins, are designed for shuttling cholesterol between cells through the bloodstream. There are two types of these lipoproteins: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
LDL cholesterol is composed of mostly triglycerides and cholesterol with only a limited amount of protein. A high amount of LDL cholesterol is associated with increased health risks such as heart disease because LDL cholesterol is deposited on artery walls. Conversely, high levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with increased heart health. HDL cholesterol is made of more protein than cholesterol and is efficiently used in the body.
How Are Cholesterol Levels Measured?
Still, generally high cholesterol levels are not a good thing. There are relatively simple tests that can measure blood cholesterol levels. A small sample of blood is drawn and sent to a laboratory where tests are run to reveal overall cholesterol levels, HDL, and triglyceride levels. Other tests can determine specific LDL cholesterol levels which contribute to a more exact understanding of health.
People anticipating a cholesterol blood test will usually be asked to fast, or avoid food, water, and medications, for about 12 hours before the test. Food can affect LDL and triglyceride readings.
What Do Cholesterol Levels Mean?
Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood. To really understand what cholesterol levels mean, physicians will take into account each patients family history of heart disease, health habits such as smoking, and high blood pressure.
Generally, desirable levels of cholesterol are as follows
- total cholesterol below 200 milligrams per deciliter
- total triglycerides below 150 milligrams per deciliter
- HDL cholesterol above 40 milligrams per deciliter for men, and above 50 for women
- LDL cholesterol below 100 milligrams per deciliter
High levels of HDL cholesterol can actually protect against heart disease. However, an overall high cholesterol reading is not healthy.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults over the age of 20 have their cholesterol checked yearly. If borderline or undesirable results come back, then testing may be recommended more frequently.