Cholesterol Overview

Good and Bad Cholesterol

Comments about "good" and "bad" cholesterol refer to the type of carrier molecule that transports the cholesterol. These carrier molecules are made of protein and are called apoproteins. They are necessary because cholesterol and other fats (lipids) can't dissolve in water, which also means they can't dissolve in blood. When these apoproteins are joined with cholesterol, they form a compound called lipoproteins. The density of these lipoproteins is determined by the amount of protein in the molecule. "Bad" cholesterol is the low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the major cholesterol carrier in the blood. High levels of these LDLs are associated with atherosclerosis. "Good" cholesterol is the high-density lipoprotein (HDL); a greater level of HDL--think of this as drain cleaner you pour in the sink--is thought to provide some protection against artery blockage.

A high level of LDL in the blood may mean that cell membranes in the liver have reduced the number of LDL receptors due to increased amounts of cholesterol inside the cell. After a cell has used the cholesterol for its chemical needs and doesn't need any more, it reduces its number of LDL receptors. This enables LDL levels to accumulate in the blood. When this happens, the LDLs begin to deposit cholesterol on artery walls, forming thick plaques. In contrast, the HDLs--the "good" guys--act to remove this excess cholesterol and transport it to the liver for disposal.

A third group of carrier molecules, the very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) are converted to LDL after delivering triglycerides to the muscles and adipose (fat) tissue.

The levels of HDL, LDL and total cholesterol are all indicators for atherosclerosis and heart attack risk. People who have a cholesterol level of 275 or greater (200 or less is desirable) are at significant risk for a heart attack, despite a favorable HDL level. In addition, people who have normal cholesterol levels but low HDL levels are also at increased risk for a heart attack.