Much of the discussion on cholesterol focuses on its negative effects. However, cholesterol helps with various bodily functions, including cell building and repair, bile production, and hormone production.

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

LDL cholesterol is what many people think of and refer to as “bad” cholesterol. HDL is the kind that people consider “good” cholesterol.

Too much LDL cholesterol in the blood can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries. When this occurs, it can lead to cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.

Cholesterol plays an important role in several bodily functions, which means a person needs some cholesterol in their system to function properly. This article reviews the functions that cholesterol helps with, as well as the different types of cholesterol, the screening process, and normal levels.

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Cholesterol helps with several functions in the body. It circulates throughout the body in the blood and is found in every cell.

The body uses cholesterol to:

  • help build new tissue and repair damage to existing tissue
  • produce steroid hormones, including estrogen
  • help create bile in the liver
  • aides in production of vitamin D

However, too much cholesterol can lead to potentially fatal conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and kidney issues.

Cholesterol is a type of lipid or fat that the liver produces. Cholesterol circulates throughout the body and goes wherever the body needs it.

There are two types of cholesterol, they include:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: Doctors often refer to this as “bad” cholesterol. It can cause a build up of plaque in the arteries, which can cause them to stiffen and become blocked.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: Doctors often refer to HDL as “good” cholesterol. It can help lower the level of bad cholesterol in the body. It does this by transporting the LDL cholesterol back to the liver, where the body breaks it down and releases it. However, HDL only eliminates about 1/4 to 1/3 of the LDL cholesterol.

Triglycerides also play an important role in understanding the potential negative effects of LDL cholesterol on the body. Triglycerides are the most common form of fat found in the body. They come from stored energy from the foods a person consumes.

High triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels, combined with low levels of HDL cholesterol, are associated with the buildup of plaque in the arteries and a higher risk of stroke and heart attack.

To check cholesterol levels, a doctor orders a blood test known as the lipid profile or lipid panel. The panel can help determine a person’s 10-year risk for a heart attack or stroke.

The test checks a person’s levels of:

  • LDL cholesterol
  • HDL cholesterol
  • triglycerides
  • total cholesterol levels

Higher LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, or overall cholesterol levels could indicate a person has an elevated risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack and stroke.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a person receive a cholesterol level screening once every 4 to 6 years for people over the age of 20 with no risk factors. People with higher risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease may need more frequent screenings.

The test is a noninvasive blood draw that a doctor may perform at a lab, hospital, or office. It requires a person to fast for 9–12 hours prior to the test, so people often do them in the morning before they have had food.

A tech will take a blood sample and send it for analysis at the lab. The lab will then return the lipid profile to the person’s doctor, who will go over the results with them over the phone or at a follow-up appointment.

In some cases, a person may be able to access their lipid profile through an online chart. They should ask their healthcare professional if they have a system they can log into to see their results.

After analysis, a lab will send a person’s doctor a report detailing their cholesterol levels. According to the Adult Treatment Panel III, the standard levels reported in a lipid profile include:

LDL cholesterol level

  • optimal: less than 100 mg/ dL
  • near optimal/above optimal: 100 to 129 mg/dL
  • borderline high: 130 to 159 mg/dL
  • high: 160 to 189 mg/dL
  • very high: greater than 190 mg/dL

HDL cholesterol level

  • low: less than 40
  • high: greater than or equal to 60

Fasting triglyceride level

  • normal: less than 150 milligram(m)/deciliter (dL)
  • mild high hypertriglyceridemia (elevated fat levels): 150 to 499 mg/dL
  • moderate hypertriglyceridemia: 500 to 886 mg/dL
  • very high or severe hypertriglyceridemia: greater than 886 mg/dL

In addition to the lipid profile, a doctor will use other factors to help assess a person’s 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease. They include:

Cholesterol helps with various bodily functions, including cell building and repair, bile production, and hormone production.

When kept at normal levels, a person has one less risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease.

If cholesterol levels are high, the person has an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

A person should have their doctor test their cholesterol levels every few years to determine if they are within the typical healthy range.