What is cholesterol?

You may think all cholesterol is bad, but your body needs some to work right.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body makes and you also get from food. It allows your body to make vitamin D and certain hormones, including estrogen in women and testosterone in men, and helps with digestion.

There are two types of cholesterol you may have heard about: High-density lipoprotein or HDL, often called good cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein or LDL, often called bad cholesterol.

Bad cholesterol can contribute to artery-clogging plaque. Good cholesterol, on the other hand, helps remove plaque. In the end, it helps protect you from getting heart disease. Having too much of the bad, or not enough of the good, can lead to heart disease.

There are usually no symptoms of high cholesterol. That’s why it’s best to get your cholesterol levels checked through a blood test or home kits. You may need to go without eating, drinking, or taking medication, anywhere from nine to 12 hours before your test. Talk to your doctor about how to best prep for a home test.

That blood test will give you several numbers, including your total cholesterol, your levels of good and bad cholesterol, and triglycerides, which is a type of fat.

How often should I have my cholesterol levels checked? If you are over the age of 20 and don’t have heart disease, you should have your levels checked every 4 to 6 years. You may need to get your cholesterol checked more often if you’re at risk for heart disease, have high cholesterol, or have been on medications that treat high cholesterol.

How can I lower my cholesterol levels? Medications and lifestyle changes can help you get high cholesterol under control. Even if you don’t have high cholesterol, you can still make changes to your daily habits to lower your risk of heart disease.

Here are steps you can take: Eat healthy: Your meals should be mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry, fish, and nuts while limiting red meat and sugary foods and drinks. Bonus: Eating a heart-healthy diet can help you lose weight, which may help lower your cholesterol. Move more: Aim for 30 minutes of heart-pumping activity most days of the week. Think brisk walking, bicycling, and swimming. Quit smoking: No matter how long you’ve been a smoker, you will still benefit from quitting. Avoid secondhand smoke: Even if you don’t smoke, being around it can raise your risk of heart disease.

OIH has a team of cardiologists who specialize in preventing and treating cholesterol-related problems. Make your appointment.