We hear about it from doctors and heart health websites, but sometimes we still don’t know the answer to the question: what is cholesterol?

Knowing what cholesterol is can be beneficial to preventing heart problems and living a healthier lifestyle.

But cholesterol and cholesterol levels can be completely misunderstood. Continue reading for more information to better understand your cholesterol and how you can maintain healthy levels.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is substance produced by the body and also found in food sources. Our bodies actually make all the cholesterol we need. However, the body ends up producing excess when you eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats.

Cholesterol is important for your cell function, since it plays a role in keeping your cell structure sound.

We often talk about cholesterol in negative terms, but it is actually essential for life.

Why Is It Bad?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing,”? This is the case with cholesterol.

A healthy cholesterol level is important to your overall health. However, when there’s too much cholesterol, it builds up in the blood stream in the form of plaque, which clogs arteries and causes multiple cardiovascular problems.

Is There Only One Type of Cholesterol?

Nope. Sadly, all cholesterol is not created equal.

Cholesterol cannot be dissolved in blood, so it requires proteins to act as “carriers” to transport it through the blood stream and get it to where it needs to be.

LDL (low density lipoproteins) is the lipoprotein “carrier” that builds up in the arteries.

HDL (high density lipoprotein) is a lipoprotein that carries cholesterol away from the bloodstream and back to the liver where it will be processed and expelled from the body.

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So Where Does Bad Cholesterol Come From?

The process of bad cholesterol build up has two parts: increased LDL (bad cholesterol) and decreased HDL (good cholesterol.

Eating unhealthy foods high in saturated fat, consuming large amounts of alcohol, smoking, and lack of activity are all controllable factors that work to lower your good cholesterol levels and increase your bad cholesterol levels.

Factors that are out of your control, which might contribute to high cholesterol, are gender, race, and family history.

How does high cholesterol lead to heart problems?

When high amounts of LDL begin attaching to your artery walls, your white blood cells try to “eat” the LDL in order to protect your arteries.

Unfortunately, you white blood cells end up turning the cholesterol into something toxic—this is what builds up in your arteries in the form of plaque.

The plaque build up eventually leads to artery blockage, yes, but the real danger is the risk of a blood clot forming due to ruptured plaque.

These blood clots are what lead to heart attacks.

How Do I Know If I Have High Cholesterol?

Doctors recommend cholesterol testing every five years beginning at the age of 20. This test is called a lipoprotein analysis, which will measure the amount of HDL, LDL, and total cholesterol in your blood.

Before your cholesterol is tested, you will be asked to fast 12 hours before to ensure the most accurate test results. These tests don’t take long and involve minimal discomfort.

For more information on cholesterol, read Cholesterol Facts: 8 Bizarre Things You Didn’t Know