what is cholestrol?

With all of the bad publicity cholesterol gets, people are often surprised to learn that it’s actually necessary for our existence.

What’s also surprising is that our bodies produce cholesterol naturally. But cholesterol isn’t all good, nor is it all bad — it’s a complex topic and one worth knowing more about.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance made in the liver that’s vital to human life. You can also get cholesterol through foods. Since it can’t be created by plants, you can only find it in animal products like meat and dairy.

In our bodies, cholesterol serves three main purposes:

  1. It aids in the production of sex hormones.
  2. It’s a building block for human tissues.
  3. It assists in bile production in the liver.

These are important functions, all dependent on the presence of cholesterol. But too much of a good thing isn’t good at all.



When people talk about cholesterol, they often use the terms LDL and HDL. Both are lipoproteins, which are compounds made of fat and protein that are responsible for carrying cholesterol throughout the body in the blood.

LDL is low-density lipoprotein, often called “bad” cholesterol. HDL is high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol.

Why is LDL bad?

LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol because too much of it can lead to hardening of the arteries.

According to the American Heart Association, LDL leads to plaque accumulation on the walls of your arteries. When this plaque builds up, it can cause two separate, and equally bad, issues.

First, it can narrow the blood vessels, straining the flow of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Second, it can lead to blood clots, which can break loose and block the flow of blood, causing a heart attack or stroke.

When it comes to your cholesterol numbers, your LDL is the one you want to keep low — ideally less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).


Why is HDL good?

HDL helps keep your cardiovascular system healthy. It actually aids in the removal of LDL from the arteries.

It carries the bad cholesterol back to the liver, where it’s broken down and eliminated from the body.

High levels of HDL have also been shown to protect against stroke and heart attack, while low HDL has been shown to increase those risks.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), HDL levels of 60 mg/dL and higher are considered protective, while those under 40 mg/dL are a risk factor for heart disease.

Total cholesterol goals

When you have your cholesterol checked, you’ll receive measurements for both your HDL and LDL, but also for your total cholesterol and triglycerides.

An ideal total cholesterol level is lower than 200 mg/dL. Anything between 200 and 239 mg/dL is borderline, and anything above 240 mg/dL is high.

Triglyceride is another type of fat in your blood. Like cholesterol, too much is a bad thing. But experts are still unclear on the specifics of these fats.

High triglycerides usually accompany high cholesterol and are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. But it isn’t clear if high triglycerides are a risk factor.

Doctors generally weigh the importance of your triglyceride count against other measurements like obesity, cholesterol levels, and more.

Keeping these numbers in check

There are several things that influence your cholesterol numbers — some of which you have control over. While heredity may play a role, so too do diet, weight, and exercise.

Eating foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fats, getting regular exercise, and managing your weight are all associated with lower cholesterol levels and lower risks of cardiovascular disease.

Good heart health is like a building block: It’s cumulative.

The earlier you try to start making healthy lifestyle choices, the better off you can be as you get older. Think about making small changes now that will lead to big changes years later. It’s like a train altering its course slightly, which leads to a big difference in its final destination.

This is particularly true when it comes to high cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance your liver makes. It’s also found in certain foods. Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly. But having too much of the bad type of cholesterol — LDL — puts you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke.

Cholesterol in your bloodstream can build up in blood vessel walls, causing blockages that can lead to:

  • reduced blood flow to the heart and increased risk for heart attack
  • decreased blood flow to the brain and increased risk for stroke

having high cholesterol raises your risk for heart disease.

Your total cholesterol level is the overall amount of cholesterol found in your blood. It consists of:

  • low-density lipoproteins (LDL)
  • high-density lipoproteins (HDL)
  • triglycerides

LDL is also called “bad” cholesterol because it blocks your blood vessels and increases your risk for heart disease. HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps protect you from heart disease. The higher your HDL, the better.

Finally, total cholesterol includes a triglycerides count. These are another type of fat that can build up in the body and are considered the “building blocks” of cholesterol.

High levels of triglycerides and low levels of HDL raise your risk for heart disease.

Cholesterol in adults

The American Heart Association recommends that all adults have their cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years, starting at age 20, which is when cholesterol levels can start to rise.

As we age, cholesterol levels tend to climb. Men are generally at a higher risk than women for higher cholesterol. However, a woman’s risk goes up after she enters menopause.

For those with high cholesterol and other cardiac risk factors, such as diabetes, more frequent testing is recommended.

Cholesterol chart for adults

According to the 2018 guidelines on the management of blood cholesterol published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), these are the acceptable, borderline, and high measurements for adults.

All values are in mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) and are based on fasting measurements.


Total cholesterol

HDL cholesterol

LDL cholesterol



Less than 200 (but the lower the better)

Ideal is 60 or higher; 40 or higher for men and 50 or higher for women is acceptable

Less than 100; below 70 if coronary artery disease is present

Less than 149; ideal is <100

Borderline to moderately elevated






240 or higher

60 or higher

160 or higher; 190 considered very high

200 or higher; 500 considered very high



less than 40



Cholesterol in children

Children who are physically active, have a healthy diet, are not overweight, and don’t have a family history of high cholesterol are at a lower risk for having high cholesterol.

Current guidelines recommend that all children have their cholesterol checked between ages 9 and 11, and then again between ages 17 and 21.

Children with more risk factors, such as having diabetes, obesity, or a family history of high cholesterol, should be checked between ages 2 and 8, and again between ages 12 and 16.

Cholesterol chart for children

According to the JACC, the following are the recommended cholesterol levels for children:

All values are in mg/dL:


Total cholesterol

HDL cholesterol

LDL cholesterol



170 or less

Greater than 45

Less than 110

Less than 75 in children 0–9; less than 90 in children 10–19





75-99 in children 0–9; 90–129 in children 10–19


200 or higher


130 or higher

100 or more in children 0–9; 130 or more in children 10–19



Less than 40



Lifestyle changes

The good news is that lifestyle changes are reasonably effective in helping you to reduce cholesterol levels. They’re also fairly straightforward and can be done at any age.

Changes include:


Physical activity can help you lose weight and boost your HDL cholesterol. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate cardiovascular exercise, such as biking, jogging, swimming, and dancing, at least 5 times a week.

Eat more fiber

Try to add more fiber to your diet, such as replacing white bread and pasta with whole grains.

Eat healthy fats

Healthy fats include:

  • olive oil
  • avocado
  • certain nuts

These are all fats that won’t raise your LDL levels.

Limit your cholesterol intake

Reduce the amount of high-saturated fatty foods like:

  • cheese
  • whole milk
  • high-fat red meats

Quit smoking

Smoking decreases HDL cholesterol. If you smoke, quitting can help you better manage your cholesterol levels.

It’s important to remember that everyone is different.

Family history and whether or not you have other conditions, such as diabetes or obesity, play a role in your individual risk.

Talk to your healthcare provider about your cholesterol levels and ask what they think your numbers should be.

“The key is to have normal cholesterol levels throughout your lifetime.

“One misconception is that people can have poorly controlled cholesterol for years and then decide to take action. By then the plaque could already have built up,” says Dr. Eugenia Gianos, director of Cardiovascular Prevention for Northwell Health in New York.

Limit your alcohol intake

The American Heart Association recommends drinking alcohol in moderation, which means, on average, no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.

Drinking too much alcohol can raise levels of triglyceride fats in the bloodstream and lead to conditions, such as:

  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • atrial fibrillation

Lose Weight

Losing excess body weight can help to lower your cholesterol levels.

To lose weight, here are a few tips.

  • Try to make healthy dietary changes and focus on portion control.
  • Try to choose lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Try to limit unhealthy fats, processed foods, and sugary snacks.
  • Try to add more physical activity to your weekly routine to increase your calorie burn so the number of calories you’re consuming is less than the number you’re burning.


Cholesterol levels

Cholesterol problems are usually associated with high cholesterol. That’s because if you have high cholesterol, you’re at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol, a fatty substance, can clog your arteries and potentially cause a heart attack or stroke by interfering with blood flow through the affected artery.

It’s possible for cholesterol to be too low. However, this is much less common than high cholesterol. High cholesterol is strongly associated with heart disease, but low cholesterol may be a factor in other medical conditions, such as cancer, depression, and anxiety.

How can cholesterol affect so many aspects of your health? First, you need to understand what cholesterol is and how it functions in your body.

What exactly is cholesterol?

Despite its association with health problems, cholesterol is something the body needs. Cholesterol is necessary to make certain hormones. It’s involved in making vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Cholesterol also plays a role in making some of the substances required to digest food.

Cholesterol travels in the blood in the form of lipoproteins, which are tiny molecules of fat wrapped in protein. There are two major types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

LDL is sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This is because it’s the kind of cholesterol that can clog your arteries. HDL, or the “good” cholesterol, helps bring LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream to the liver. From the liver, the excess LDL cholesterol is removed from the body.

The liver plays another key role in cholesterol. Most of your cholesterol is made in your liver. The rest comes from the food you eat. Dietary cholesterol is found only in animal food sources, such as eggs, meat, and poultry. It’s not found in plants.

What are the dangers of low cholesterol?

High LDL levels may be lowered by medications, such as statins, as well as regular exercise and a healthy diet. When your cholesterol drops due to these reasons, there usually isn’t a problem. In fact, lower cholesterol is better than high cholesterol most of the time. It’s when your cholesterol falls for no obvious reason that you should take notice and discuss it with your healthcare provider.

While the exact effects of low cholesterol on health are still being studied, researchers are concerned about how low cholesterol appears to negatively affect mental health.

An 1999 Duke University study of healthy young women found that those with low cholesterol were more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety. Researchers suggest that because cholesterol is involved in making hormones and vitamin D, low levels may affect the health of your brain. Vitamin D is important for cell growth. If brain cells aren’t healthy, you may experience anxiety or depression. The connection between low cholesterol and mental health still isn’t completely understood and is being researched.

A 2012 study presented at the American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions found a possible relationship between low cholesterol and cancer risk. The process that affects cholesterol levels could affect cancer, but more research is needed on the topic.

One other concern about low cholesterol involves women who may become pregnant. If you’re pregnant and you have low cholesterol, you face a higher risk of delivering your baby prematurely or having a baby who has a low birth weight. If you tend to have low cholesterol, talk with your doctor about what you should do in this case.

Symptoms of low cholesterol

For people with high LDL cholesterol, there are often no symptoms until a heart attack or stroke occurs. If there’s a serious blockage in a coronary artery, you may experience chest pain due to reduced blood flow to the heart muscle.

With low cholesterol, there’s no chest pain signaling a buildup of fatty substances in an artery.

Depression and anxiety can spring from many causes, including possibly low cholesterol. Symptoms of depression and anxiety include:

  • hopelessness
  • nervousness
  • confusion
  • agitation
  • difficulty making a decision
  • changes in your mood, sleep, or eating patterns

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, see your doctor. If your doctor doesn’t suggest a blood test, ask whether you should have one.

Risk factors for low cholesterol

Risk factors for low cholesterol include having a family history of the condition, being on statins or other blood pressure treatment programs, and having untreated clinical depression.

Diagnosing low cholesterol

The only way to properly diagnose your cholesterol levels is through a blood test. If you have an LDL cholesterol less than 50 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or your total cholesterol is less than 120 mg/dL, you have low LDL cholesterol.

Total cholesterol is determined by adding LDL and HDL and 20 percent of your triglycerides, which are another type of fat in your bloodstream. An LDL cholesterol level between 70 and 100 mg/dL is considered ideal.

It’s important to keep track of your cholesterol. If you haven’t had your cholesterol checked within the last two years, schedule an appointment.


Treating low cholesterol

Your low cholesterol is most likely being caused by something in your diet or physical condition. In order to treat low cholesterol, it’s important to understand that simply eating cholesterol-rich foods won’t solve the problem. By taking blood samples and undergoing a mental health evaluation, suggestions for your diet and lifestyle may be made to treat your low cholesterol.

If your cholesterol level is affecting your mental health, or vice versa, you may be prescribed an antidepressant.

It’s also possible that statin medication has caused your cholesterol to drop too low. If that is the case, your prescription dose or medication may need to be adjusted.

Preventing low cholesterol

Because having a level of cholesterol that is too low isn’t something that most people worry about, it’s very rare that people take steps to prevent it.

To keep your cholesterol levels balanced, get frequent checkups. Maintain a heart-healthy diet and an active lifestyle to avoid having to take statins or blood pressure medications. Be aware of any family history of cholesterol problems. And finally, pay attention to symptoms of anxiety and stress, especially any that make you feel violent.

Outlook and complications

Low cholesterol has been linked to some serious health complications. It’s a risk factor for primary intracerebral hemorrhage, which typically happens in older adults. It also carries a risk for low birth weight or premature birth in pregnant women. Most notably, low cholesterol has been deemed a risk factor for suicide or violent behavior.

If your doctor notices that your cholesterol is too low, make sure you talk about whether you need to be concerned. If you’re feeling the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or instability, low cholesterol could be a factor.

Source: healthline