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Your Health: Cholesterol levels and your health

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver. The body’s cell walls need cholesterol to produce hormones, vitamin D and bile acids that help digest fat. Cholesterol is also found in certain foods, such as dairy products, eggs and meat.

What is the difference between good and bad cholesterol?

Cholesterol travels through the blood attached to a protein. This cholesterol-protein package is called a lipoprotein. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), also called “bad” cholesterol, can cause plaque buildup on the walls of arteries. High-density lipoproteins (HDL), known as “good” cholesterol, help the body get rid of bad cholesterol in the blood. Triglycerides are another type of fat carried in the blood by low-density lipoproteins. Excess calories, alcohol and sugar in the body are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells throughout the body.

What causes high cholesterol levels?

Heredity, diabetes and other medical conditions can contribute to increased risk. Being overweight and smoking are also risk factors.

How would I know if cholesterol is a problem for me?

Unless cholesterol levels have become very elevated, you probably won’t experience noticeable symptoms. Because it’s important — and easier — to lower cholesterol before levels are high, you should be screened at least once every five years beginning at age 20. If you have heart disease in your family, screenings are recommended more frequently. Men age 45 and older and women 55 and older should be screened annually because cholesterol levels tend to rise with age and for women, after menopause.

Why is it important to control cholesterol levels?

When too much cholesterol is present, plaque (a thick, hard deposit) may form in the body’s arteries. This narrows the space for blood to flow to the heart and causes hardening of the arteries, which leads to heart disease and heart attacks. High cholesterol can also contribute to narrowing of the blood vessels, which impedes flow to the brain and can cause strokes.

What can I do to lower bad cholesterol?

Making wise eating choices and exercising regularly can significantly reduce cholesterol levels.

Reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet.

Try to be physically active for 30 minutes on most days. You may want to ask your doctor or a dietitian for assistance in making appropriate lifestyle changes.

Is medication necessary to lower cholesterol levels?

Your doctor will help you make that decision. You may need a cholesterol-lowering medication, depending on how high your cholesterol levels are.

Statins, the most commonly used cholesterol drugs, have been shown to reduce “bad” cholesterol by up to 50 percent or more and increase “good” cholesterol by up to 15 percent.

This also reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular problems.

Dr. Alya Jawaid is an internal medicine physician at Sanford Bemidji. Dr. Jawaid obtained her medical degree from Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, and completed an Internal Medicine residency at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.  Prior to moving to Bemidji with her family, Jawaid worked as an Internist/Hospitalist at HealthEast Care System in Maplewood, Minn.