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What You Need to Know About Cholesterol

September is National Cholesterol Education Month. It makes sense that an entire month would be dedicated to education about cholesterol, because very few people understand what cholesterol is and how it affects health. Professional truck drivers are particularly at risk. According to the 2014 National Survey of Long-Haul Truck Driver Health and Injury conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 22 percent of drivers suffer from high cholesterol. Read on to learn more about what cholesterol does inside your body and what can happen if you have too much. 

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by your liver. Your body’s natural cholesterol is used for producing hormones and aids in digestion. For most, an appropriate amount of cholesterol is obtained through food digestion and does not need to be supplemented.

Is all cholesterol bad?

There are two different types of cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered “good” cholesterol - the kind that your body naturally produces. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the cholesterol that your body absorbs from food and is usually considered the “bad” cholesterol. To maintain its proper function, your body needs a balance of both HDL and LDL.

How much is too much?

A desirable level of total cholesterol for most people is 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood, or 200 mg/dl. Total cholesterol is a measure of both the HDL and LDL found in your body. A higher HDL number (usually 60mg/dl) protects against heart disease, while a lower HDL indicates a risk of heart disease. Conversely, high LDL (130 mg/dl or more) presents a health risk due to the presence of high amounts of fatty buildup in your bloodstream. 

How do I find out if my cholesterol is high?

It is important to get regular cholesterol checks from a young age since cholesterol levels increase over a long period of time. It is recommended to begin cholesterol checks at age 20 and continue in five-year increments. This allows you to identify long-term trends in your cholesterol levels and take action if you see an increase over time. Ask your doctor to perform a lipoprotein panel as part of your labs during your next physical to find out your cholesterol levels.

How can I lower my cholesterol?

For some people, cholesterol can be maintained or lowered with regular exercise and a healthy diet and lifestyle choices. For others, prescription medication may be needed in addition to lifestyle changes. Generally, eating a diet that is low in fat and high in dietary fiber; regular exercise; moderate alcohol consumption; and avoiding nicotine intake, can lower your levels of LDL and reduce your risk of heart disease. However, if your cholesterol is a severe health risk your doctor may prescribe medication to help lower your cholesterol There are a number of prescription medications available and they all work in different ways  to lower cholesterol, so consult with your doctor to determine which will work best for you Cholesterol is a necessary for your body’s peak performance, but for many of us our dietary intake works against us to increase cholesterol beyond optimal levels. The key to maintaining your cholesterol levels and preventing heart disease is awareness and early detection. To learn more about cholesterol and its health impacts, visit the National Institute of Health.