Cholesterol for dummies

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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of fat which is carried around in your blood. Cholesterol is essential for your body – it is necessary for building cells and it helps to produce some hormones, such as oestrogen and testosterone. Unless you are severely malnourished, your body produces all the cholesterol it needs, so you do not need to eat foods containing cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol – one good and one bad.

Where does cholesterol come from?

Cholesterol is found in animal products. This includes meat, dairy and eggs. There is no cholesterol in plant products. Although animal products contain cholesterol, it is not necessary to cut them out of your diet. You can safely eat up to six eggs per week, and the benefits you get from eating seafood far outweigh the cholesterol content.

What is bad cholesterol?

The scientific name for bad cholesterol is low density lipoprotein (LDL). It is often referred to as simply LDL. LDL is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol because having high levels of LDL is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and peripheral artery disease. If there is too much bad cholesterol in your blood it ends up sticking to the walls of your arteries, which causes your artery walls to thicken and your arteries to narrow, decreasing the blood flow through the area. This process is called ‘atherosclerosis’.

What is good cholesterol?

The scientific name for good cholesterol is high density lipoprotein (HDL). It is often referred to as simply HDL. HDL is known as ‘good’ cholesterol because HDL extracts bad cholesterol from your artery walls and disposes of it through your liver. Good cholesterol helps to protect you against heart disease and stroke.

What is total cholesterol?

Total cholesterol is the sum of all the cholesterol in your blood. This includes HDL, LDL and triglycerides. Triglycerides are not technically a type of cholesterol, but they come with their own health risks, and are often associated with high levels of bad cholesterol.

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What is high cholesterol?

Having healthy levels of cholesterol is not just about having low levels of bad cholesterol. You need to make sure you have a healthy ratio of good to bad cholesterol. It might sound strange, but it is actually healthy to have high levels of good cholesterol. Having high levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol puts you at risk of atherosclerosis, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries. To protect you from heart disease and stroke, the most desirable ratio to have is a high level of good cholesterol and a low level of bad cholesterol.

How is cholesterol measured?

Your cholesterol levels can be measured with a simple blood test. The test results will give you four measures: your levels of good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol, which is the sum of all cholesterols and triglycerides. There are two systems of measuring cholesterol. They will give you different numbers, but they mean the same thing. InAustraliait is most common to see cholesterol measured in mmol/L, or millimoles per litre. You might also see cholesterol measured in mg/dl, or milligrams per decilitre, but this is more common in theUSA.

What do the numbers mean?

There is no measurable ‘healthy’ cholesterol level. Two people may have very different cholesterol levels and still be equally healthy. Having said that, health professionals do need a way to decide whether or not to take action. The following tables are a guide to what is generally considered to be ‘healthy’ cholesterol. The numbers may vary slightly depending on your information source.

Bad cholesterol

Australian (mmol/L)

USA (mg/dL)

Optimal if at high risk of heart disease

Below 1.8

Below 70


Below 2.6

Below 100

Slightly above optimal



Borderline high






Very high

5 and above

190 and above

Good cholesterol


Australian (mmol/L)

USA (mg/dL)


1.6 and above

60 and above



1–1.3 for men

1.3–1.5 for women

40–49 for men

50–59 for women



Below 1 for men

Below 1.3 for women

Below 40 for men

Below 50 for women

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How can I lower my bad cholesterol?

Lowering your bad cholesterol will decrease your risk of heart attacks and strokes. There are two ways to lower your bad cholesterol – through lifestyle changes and by taking medication. If your bad cholesterol levels are high you should start by losing any excess weight, exercising regularly (a brisk 30-minute walk most days of the week) and following a diet which is low in saturated fat and cholesterol – try changing to lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Quitting smoking is another good way to lower your bad cholesterol, and you should also limit your alcohol intake to two standard drinks per day.

There are also some foods which help to lower bad cholesterol. These include polyunsaturated oils, such as sunflower oil, oats and legumes.

If these lifestyle changes do not reduce your bad cholesterol to an acceptable level, your GP may prescribe medication. The most commonly used medications to lower bad cholesterol are called statins. If you are taking medication to lower your cholesterol you should also continue with the lifestyle changes, as the combination of the two will give you the best results.

How can I increase my good cholesterol?

Regular exercise, loss of excess weight and cessation of smoking will all increase your good cholesterol levels. There are also medications which can be used to bring your good cholesterol levels up, which can be prescribed by your GP if it becomes necessary.

How often should I get my cholesterol tested?

Everyone over the age of 20 should be getting their cholesterol tested every five years, and some experts recommend that men over 35 and women over 45 years of age get tested more frequently. If you are already having a yearly checkup then you may wish to ask for a cholesterol test at the same time.

To find out more you can read the CSIRO’s guide to The facts about cholesterol levels. 

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Total Comments: 10
  1. 0

    Sorry all you experts out there. I was taking Crestor for 4 years and in that time my cholesterol did go down but I also began to suffer aches and pains in my legs and feet, could not walk any further than 50 mtrs before I had to sit down and get my breath and also Graves” disease. I saw a heart specialist, lung function specialist, endocrinologist, had many scans and CT’s for all sorts of reasons and finally began to succumb to dementia where, if I went out in the car, I often would not remember I had a car to drive home in. I also forgot many things connected with family and daily life. My doctor was about to send me to see a neurologist because the head CT and Doppler scan of my neck showed no abnormalities. All the specialists said they could not find any reasons for my illnesses. Last December a cousin told me about a book called “The Great Cholesterol Con” and I also started to search online and found that all my symptoms could be caused by taking statins (which Crestor contains). I stopped taking this and within 3 weeks was back to my NORMAL self, walking for 1 hour every day and with full memory returned. All the symptoms I had had over the last 3 years that no one could find a reason for, all disappeared. So thanks very much, but no more statins for me. I want to stay health, as I am now. I wonder how many people taking statins have been admitted to nursing homes because they had all the same symptoms I had, including early dementia.

  2. 0

    Good comment, and a lesson for all.
    The whole cholesterol scare is a discredited theory that sounds logical but has not ever been proven conclusively in any of the hundreds of trials over many years.
    It is primarily a con to get the populace onto profitable drugs for the rest of their lives.
    Do some research and you will find that the bogey of cholesterol is a myth, and is poorly researched by the media. The same old things are trotted out, and so they become truisms.
    Please-do your own research. Lots of good books out there exploding the myth. None that prove it is valid.

  3. 0

    The Diabetes association recently put out an article saying statins can increase your risk of developing type2 diabetes if you are at risk.

  4. 0

    I to was on 20mg crestor tablets and had the same symtems described by techno nanny 23 nov i stopped my crestor and instead take fish oil tablets and my dr says my cholestral is fine

  5. 0

    it is well known that these drugs have nasty side effects, and they are very common.
    Drug companies have taken over and won the argument.
    Now it’s too hard for any voice of reason to be heard.

  6. 0

    Side effects of Lipidor are the same. Doctor put my husband on Lipidor and in six weeks lost 3 kgs (he only weighed 66kgs before the loss), had headaches all the time, couldn’t sleep, all joints were aching, energy depletion etc. He stopped taking it after six weeks and said he would reduce cholesterol in other ways (research showed there are ways to do so). Fresh produce is best, remove as much processed food as possible, if not all.

  7. 0

    I too took Statins for years, I had so many problems so started to look for an answer, as I was getting no where with all the medical advice given to me, I just knew if I kept on as i was i would die, I could hardly walk and my muscles were changing, my breathing and memory were also affected. After many hours looking on the net, reading so many stories about people in the same position, and what they were doing to try to find out what was wrong, one person wrote about their partner who was in a wheelchair and blamed statins, so I thought, this could be the answer, I stopped taking them, and have slowly improved, many of my friends have passed on what happened to me, and in all cases those people stopped the statins and their symptoms improved. I have still got high cholesterol levels after doing everything that I can, my diet is very good, I have been told that my condition is genetic,my liver is just very good at making cholesterol.
    I figure that i would rather take my chances than destroy myself taking that drug, I feel better as I am, my mother and aunts lived until they were 100, and never had heard of cholesterol, I just know if I had continued taking statins I would have been dead by now, I have worked with my doctors and they began to question the medication, I believe that they may well help some, but there are many who they are making life a misery.
    Remember your heart is a muscle too.
    Eat a good diet, exercise and good luck,

  8. 0

    PS, I take Krill oil, Fish oil, Co Enzyme Q10, and Kyolic Garlic,a multi Vit and a few other things, still have high cholesterol, about 7.8, but I am doing all i can, and at least i am still mobile and independant.

  9. 0

    The Insanity of Lowering Cholesterol

    Sally Fallon, the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and Mary Enig, Ph.D, an expert in lipid biochemistry, have gone so far as to call high cholesterol “an invented disease, a ‘problem’ that emerged when health professionals learned how to measure cholesterol levels in the blood.”[iii]

    And this explanation is spot on.

    If you have increased levels of cholesterol, it is at least in part because of increased inflammation in your body. The cholesterol is there to do a job: help your body to heal and repair.

    Conventional medicine misses the boat entirely when they dangerously recommend that lowering cholesterol with drugs is the way to reduce your risk of heart attacks, because what is actually needed is to address whatever is causing your body damage — and leading to increased inflammation and then increased cholesterol.



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