Learn Your Lipids

Lipid is a medical term for fat found in the bloodstream. There are different types of lipids, some good and some bad. The two major types of lipids are cholesterol and triglycerides.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that provides your body with energy and is used to make hormones and bile acids necessary to help digest food. Cholesterol is made naturally by the body but is also taken in from some foods. Your body needs cholesterol to function properly, but having too much can cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which may lead to heart disease or stroke.

Cholesterol travels throughout the body in little packages called lipoproteins which are made up of blood fats called lipids and proteins. Two main types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol:

  • Low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C)

    LDL-C is known as the “bad” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to tissues, including the arteries. You might think of LDL as being the bad “dump truck.” LDL cholesterol is the amount of cholesterol fat circulating in your blood, which can be used to estimate the number of LDL dump trucks getting into the artery wall — the cause of plaque build-up and driving force behind atherosclerosis, heart disease and stroke.

    Based on your risk for heart disease, your doctor will help you set an LDL-C goal. While lowering LDL-C is the main method for managing heart disease risk, it is important to keep your other lipids at a healthy level, too.

  • High density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C)

    HDL-C is known as the “good” cholesterol because it helps take “bad” cholesterol out of the body. Think about HDL-C as a “tow truck” that removes LDL-C from your blood. The higher your HDL-C level, the more “bad” cholesterol your body can remove. Research has shown that for every one mg/dL increase in HDL-C, your risk of a heart attack drops three to four percent. Because studies have shown that low HDL-C may be a greater risk factor for heart disease in women, guidelines for healthy HDL-C levels differ for men and women.

Triglycerides

Triglycerides are another type of lipid, or fat, found both in the blood and in foods. High triglycerides are often caused by being overweight, a lack of physical activity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol intake, or a diet very high in carbohydrates–the sugars and starches found in bread, cereals, fruits, etc. When triglycerides are high, LDL-C no longer accurately estimates the number and risk of LDL “dump trucks.” In this case, your doctor will try different ways of estimating your level of LDL-C, such as calculated non-HDL cholesterol (the sum of all cholesterol levels minus HDL-C), or advanced tests such as ApoB or NMR spectroscopy.

High levels of triglycerides have been linked to increased heart disease risk–particularly in women. Research shows that women with high triglycerides and a waist larger than 35 inches are three times more likely to die of heart disease than those without those risk factors. People with diabetes tend to have higher triglycerides than those without the condition. Diabetic patients also face greater risks if they have a high triglyceride count.

Total Cholesterol

Total cholesterol is the sum of all cholesterol in the blood. Even if your total cholesterol is below 200 mg/dL, you may still be at risk for heart disease if your individual lipid measures are not within recommended levels.

Why are healthy lipid levels important?

Artery

Unhealthy lipid levels can increase your risk of heart disease, the number one cause of death for American men and women. In fact, diseases of the heart alone cause more than 30 percent of all deaths in the U.S., many more than all cancers combined. The most dangerous of the heart diseases is atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries.” It’s a buildup of the waxy deposits from cholesterol, called plaque, that can narrow your arteries and prevent oxygen from getting to your heart. This can lead to stroke, heart attack, and even death.

What are healthy lipid levels?

  • HDL-C (Good Cholesterol) > 40 mg/dL in men and > 50 mg/dL in women
  • LDL-C (Bad Cholesterol) < 100 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides < 150 mg/dL
  • Total Cholesterol < 200 mg/dL

Who is at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease?

Factors you can’t change Factors you can change
  • Age–45 or older for men; 55 or older for women
  • Family history of early heart disease–father or brother diagnosed before 55; mother of sister diagnosed before age 65
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Diabetes
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