Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance essential in maintaining healthy cells. Naturally produced by the liver, cholesterol helps manufacture all of our steroid hormones (e.g. estrogen, testosterone and cortisol) as well as Vitamin D. Furthermore, cholesterol is synthesized as bile acids which are needed for digesting fat. The body generally produces just enough cholesterol to carry out all these essential functions; however genetics and dietary indiscretion can elevate these numbers and have the potential to lead to many illnesses.
Cholesterol levels can be measured in the blood. A simple blood test after a 10 to 12 hour fast accurately measures natural cholesterol. Results comprise several different values. The total cholesterol measured includes low density lipoprotein (LDL), high density lipoprotein (HDL), and very low density lipoprotein (VLDL). LDL or "bad" cholesterol is responsible for the atherosclerotic plaques which clog the arteries. HDL or "good" cholesterol helps transport cholesterol back to the liver and works to remove plaque from the walls of these arteries. VLDL (rarely reported in the blood work) contains triglycerides (fats) and is associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Triglyceride levels are inversely proportionate to the HDL: The higher the triglycerides the lower the HDL. Thus, lowering triglycerides may improve outcomes by raising the protective HDL. High cholesterol levels may increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and even dementia. Therefore, it is important to maintain a higher ratio of HDL to LDL as this tends to correlate with lower incidences of these diseases.