Cholesterol: The good, bad, and ugly

Cholesterol, commonly portrayed as a villain in the play of life, is essential (in proper amounts) in body functions. It’s involved in the production of hormones, helps the liver manufacture acids vital in digesting fats, and is one of the main components in building cell membranes and other structures. Without it, we wouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, in excessive amounts, cholesterol builds up in our arteries in fatty deposits called plaques, ultimately causing potentially fatal blockages.

Lipids (proper name lipoproteins) – or fatty cholesterol components – are a kind of blood borne conveyance for cholesterol. The most common form is low density lipoprotein, or LDL – often referred to as “bad” cholesterol because it appears to play a central role in plaque buildup and the subsequent development of coronary artery disease.

High density lipoprotein, or HDL – “good” cholesterol – helps remove cholesterol from artery walls and transport it to the liver for excretion. There’s also very low density lipoprotein, or VLDL, a precursor to LDL that hauls triglycerides, another kind of fat.

Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as “normal” lipid levels; it depends on an individuas risk level. A young woman in her 30s without any family background of heart disease who doesn’t smoke, who has no hypertension or diabetes could easily tolerate a relatively high cholesterol level, simply by means of proper diet and exercise. On the other hand, a 40 year old man with a lower cholesterol level but who’s just had a coronary bypass and is a high risk for future heart disease, might be started on lipid lowering medication. The acceptable level of cholesterol depends a great deal on the patient’s risk.