You’ve heard the hearsay
Most of us are aware that there are two types of cholesterol, one is deemed “good” and the other “bad.” We have heard about the dangers of having high levels of “bad” cholesterol but what does it mean when your “good” cholesterol is low? People assume that high level of “good” or HDL cholesterol are a positive thing. This isn’t strictly the case. In reality, “good” cholesterol is not always good. Let’s look at what happens when your HDL cholesterol is low.
What’s the real story?
LDL cholesterol (low density lipoprotein cholesterol) is renowned for being bad news. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in every single cell in our body. We need it for our bodies to function. LDL cholesterol can build up, forming plaque on the artery walls and constricting blood flow. This build up can lead to heart disease and angina. If the build up becomes too severe, it can lead to a complete blockage to an organ. If the blood flow to the brain is stopped, that is when people suffer from strokes. A blockage to the heart will cause a heart attack.
HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) transports the LDL cholesterol to the liver, for it to be reprocessed. This role is what has caused HDL cholesterol to be branded as “good” cholesterol for so many years. Former thinking would have us believe that a low level of HDL would be a bad thing. There was once a time when high LDL and low HDL would signify an increased risk of heart disease. More recent studies show that high levels of HDL can actually be linked to more worrying conditions such as a mutated gene that may actually put people more at risk of developing heart conditions.
So are low levels of good cholesterol a good thing?
If HDL clears the bad cholesterol from the body and keeps the arteries clear, then you would imagine that an increased amount would reduce equate to fewer heart attacks and strokes. A trial involving 3,414 people concluded that this was not the case. The participants all suffered from heart disease. Some of them were given a high-dose niacin drug that causes HDL level to increase substantially. Others were given a placebo. After 18 months, it was concluded that those who were given the medication to increase HDL cholesterol showed no improvement in risk of heart attack and there was a slight increase in risk of stroke. HDL cholesterol levels did not have a positive impact on heart disease or stroke.
What about low levels of HDL?
If high levels of HDL did not protect against heart disease and stroke,
then we can conclude that low levels will not increase the risk. Evidence shows that it is in fact our levels of LDL cholesterol that need to be kept in check. Lack of exercise, a poor diet (with high amounts of saturated fat), drinking alcohol and smoking are all contributing factors to high levels of total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol in particular. Other factors can affect your cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is common in diabetics, people with high blood pressure, people with underactive thyroids and those with liver or kidney disease. There is also a genetic factor at play, and even certain medications can increase your total cholesterol level. It is important to read the instructions that come with any medications and alert your doctor to any family history of cholesterol related conditions such as atherosclerosis (thinning of the arteries) and heart disease.
Here’s the deal
The most important thing you can do in regards to cholesterol is be aware of the risks, have regular cholesterol checks (also known as lipid panels) and make sensible lifestyle choices. As well as limiting smoking, drinking and maintaining a healthy weight there are certain things you can do to keep your LDL level low such as exercise and eat food that is rich in fibre (such as oats, sweet potatoes, legumes, beans, fruit and vegetables). Although there is still debate over good HDL cholesterol really is, there is no denying that LDL cholesterol is bad for your health and should be limited.