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Cholesterol - What the LDL is it?

Updated on January 17, 2018
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'Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol (hypercholesterolaemia) is not a disease in itself but is a condition which can lead to some very serious consequences. Among these are heart attack and stroke. However, you cannot just tell whether you have high cholesterol, you need to have a blood test. Cholesterol has become more and more prevalent as a health concern over the last few years as people's awareness of it has grown. Many people have preconceptions about it, most of them bad and related to the simple fact that they may simply have 'high cholesterol'. This is largely due to misinformation and general lack of knowledge on their part. True, cholesterol can be bad for you, but it can also benefit you in many ways.

Cholesterol is a type of fat, which already brands it as indispensable. It is a vital component of our bodies and can be found in all our cell membranes, digestive juices released by the gall bladder, sex hormones and Vitamin D (which is vital for calcium metabolism). It is obtained by the body in two ways; firstly the liver produces its only supply for regulation of bodily functions. Secondly it is taken in through eating products such as egg yolk, animal organs (liver, kidneys) and it is also readily available in shellfish and dairy products.

Being unable to dissolve into the blood stream, the cholesterol in our bodies needs some sort of reliable transport mechanism with which to circulate. This takes the form of Lipoproteins. These molecules carry the cholesterol around our bodies to wherever it is needed. There are two types of lipoprotein. Low density (LDLs) and High density (HDLs).

Which is Which?

It is not the absolute value of cholesterol in your blood stream which counts. So when you hear people say 'I have got high cholesterol', this can be worse in some cases than others. The important figure is the ratio of HDLs to LDLs.

LDLs are considered to be the bad components. They take the cholesterol from the liver too the cells in the body and dump it there. They also have a tendency to release cholesterol into the tissues, including blood vessel walls. It is this plaque build-up on the artery walls which leads to narrowing and this causes blockages and increases the risk of heart disease. LDLs contain approximately 50% cholesterol, 10% tri-glycerides and a small amount of protein. They carry around three-quarters of the cholesterol in the body.

HDLs are considered to be the good components. They are responsible for removing cholesterol from the cells and bloodstream and returning it to the liver. In this way, they play a protective role in preventing the plaque build-up on the artery walls. They actually appear to prevent LDLs from depositing. HDLs contain a high proportion of protein and only around 20% cholesterol.

Therefore, it is better to have a high proportion of HDLs and a lower proportion of LDLs than vice-versa. In fact, it is possible to have a high cholesterol count with the right composition, and be healthier than someone with a low cholesterol count, but the wrong composition.

How Can I try to ensure that I have a high percentage of HDLs?

It is now widely accepted that a healthy blood cholesterol level should be less than 200mg/dL, tri-glyceride composition should be below 100-125mg/dL, and the percentage of HDLs should be greater than 40mg/dL. A total blood cholesterol level of 240mg/dL or above is still considered to be a major coronary artery disease risk factor at any age.

  • Diet and exercise can produce a substantial improvement in your cholesterol level and risk of developing blocked arteries and other related diseases. A decrease in intake of saturated fats (animal source) and an increase in intake of fresh fruit and vegetables is extremely beneficial.
  • Studies have shown that Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for lowering tri-glyceride and cholesterol levels in the blood. Such fatty acids can be found in fish like herring, mackerel, sardines and tuna. These facts have been backed up by research on Eskimo populations which has shown that they have significantly higher percentages of HDLs in their blood than westerners. This obviously being the result of their diet consisting mainly of fish.
  • Medical research also shown that garlic can reduce cholesterol levels by approximately 8-12%. These results were gathered in clinical trials using garlic tablets.
  • If you smoke, you need to give up because the damage done to arteries by smoking can increase the likelihood of blockages occurring.

Remember, every 1% reduction in your cholesterol level lowers your risk of coronary artery disease by 2% and each increase of 1mg/dL of your good (HDL) cholesterol decreases your risk by 2-3%. If you are at all worried about your current situation with regard to your cholesterol, you should consult a medical practitioner.

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