What is a normal cholesterol level?

How cholesterol can affect your health


We have all heard of cholesterol and somehow know that it is not good if we have ‘high cholesterol’ but how many of us actually know what it is?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is produced naturally in the liver.  Everyone has cholesterol and we need it to stay healthy as every cell in the body uses it to maintain cell membranes and synthesising hormones. We can also obtain cholesterol from the foods that we eat such as meat, fish, butter cheese and milk.

There are two main types of cholesterol, one of which we consider to be ‘good’ cholesterol and the other ‘bad’ cholesterol. If we say that we have ‘high cholesterol’ it refers to high levels of bad cholesterol which increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

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Cholesterol - the good and the bad!

Cholesterol is carried in the blood by binding to the protein. When cholesterol and protein are combined it is known as a lipoprotein.

High-density lipoprotein - otherwise known as HDL, is the ‘good’ cholesterol. It is known as this because it is believed that HDL acts like a scavenger, cleaning up the bloodstream of unwanted LDL by carrying it away from the arteries and back to the liver for where it is broken down and eliminated. HDL will remove between a quarter and a third of the LDL.

Non-high density lipoprotein - this is known as the ‘bad’ cholesterol and is also known as non-HDL. The ‘bad’ cholesterol used to be known as LDL or low-density lipoprotein but it was discovered that any cholesterol that wasn’t high density was also harmful.

Non-HDL, when it is present in excess quantities, can build up on the insides of the blood vessels. They become clogged (also known as atherosclerosis) and so become more narrow which reduces the blood supply to the heart as well as encouraging the formation of blood clots which can lead to strokes and heart attacks.



There is another type of fat found in our bloodstream called triglycerides. This is stored in the fat cells of the body and if you are overweight, eat too much sugar and fat as well as drinking too much alcohol you are likely to have a high triglyceride level. Triglycerides can also cause narrowing of the arteries or atherosclerosis. It is worth noting that even if your levels of non-HDL and HDL are normal, you can still have high levels of triglycerides.


Know your levels!

It is important to know what level of which cholesterol is healthy in order that we can protect our hearts.  When we go to the doctor for a cholesterol test, these are the results we are looking for:

What your cholesterol levels should be

Causes of high cholesterol

The causes of high cholesterol that you are able to control include:

  • Eating too much saturated fat. Cut down on butter, cheese, full fat milk and red meat.
  • Get up off your char and get active. Lack of physical activity contributes to high levels of cholesterol.
  • If you need to, go on a diet. In particular, if you carry weight around the middle portion of the body you are more likely to have high cholesterol levels.
  • Give up smoking as it causes elevated levels of non-HDL and triglycerides in the body.
  • If you are overweight or have diabetes you are more at risk of having high cholesterol levels.

There are other causes of high cholesterol that you cannot control.  These include:

  • Getting older
  • GenderEthnic background
  • Family history of high levels of cholesterol
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • An underactive thyroid gland


Treatment for high cholesterol

We can control the problem ourselves to some extent by improving our diet, losing weight, being active, giving up smoking and reducing alcohol intake - in other words, adopting a healthy lifestyle. However if your cholesterol levels refuse to budge by changing your lifestyle, there are drugs that can be considered.

The main medication used to reduce cholesterol are statins. Discuss the options with your GP who will know if there are any other drugs that you may need to take.

He may also refer you to a specialist (lipidologist) for further investigation if he feels that it is required.

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