Cholesterol: what it is, what functions it performs and reference values

Our eating and sports habits influence our psychophysical well-being. To get a general idea of ​​the state of health it is useful to undergo a blood test regularly. This allows you to monitor the levels of different substances such as cholesterol and sugars.

The Discovery of cholesterol in our blood test scare us. In reality, its presence is completely physiological and indispensable, as long as its levels in the blood are normal. In fact, it can represent a serious health risk when levels are higher than expected as this condition (hypercholesterolemia) can lead to the development of cardiovascular disease.

However, the presence of high cholesterol produces no symptoms, so it can quietly rise and put us in danger without our knowledge. To keep the levels under control, it is necessary to take a blood sample.

What is that Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is fat present in the blood. It is very important for our body, in particular for the correct fluidity of cell membranes and for the formation of sex hormones. It is largely produced by the body (80%) and a small part is introduced into our body with the diet (20%).

Cholesterol is transported in molecular structures which are called lipoproteins. Among the main lipoproteins are:

  • those with low density or LDL, also known as “bad” cholesterol , which transport excess cholesterol in circulation from the liver to the arteries, releasing it as a deposit in the vessels, resulting in the formation of atherosclerotic plaque, which hinders the flow of blood from the blood vessels ;
  • the high-density lipoproteins or HDL, on the other hand, known as “good” cholesterol, remove cholesterol from the tissues, and therefore also from the arteries, and return it to the liver, which eliminates it through the bile salts (bile).

So the former distribute cholesterol to the cells for use, the latter remove excess cholesterol returning it to the liver to be eliminated. The danger is highlighted when we have high LDL cholesterol . Having high HDL allows you to reduce the amount of excess cholesterol and, therefore, is not dangerous at all, “explains the doctor.

What functions does it perform?

Cholesterol performs various functions within our organism: it participates in the production of vitamin D (a fat-soluble protein essential for the health of bones, teeth and the immune system). It is also a fundamental component of cell membranes. Furthermore, it is part of the composition of bile salts and the myelin sheath, which is important for nerve transmission, and contributes to the formation of sex and adrenal hormones “, continues the expert.

What are the reference values?

A simple blood test performed in the morning on an empty stomach is the most effective way to check your cholesterol level and find out if you have hypercholesterolemia. The optimal values ​​are:

  • Total cholesterol (roughly the sum of LDL and HDL cholesterol values): less than 200 mg / dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood). “High cholesterol” or “hypercholesterolemia” is defined as a total cholesterol value in the blood above 240 mg / dL.
  • “Bad” cholesterol LDL ( Low Density Lipoprotein ): ideal level below 115 mg / dl; normal level below 130 mg / dL “Good” HDL ( High Density Lipoprotein ) cholesterol: the higher the levels, the better. In general, for women they should not be lower than 50 mg / dL, and for men not lower than 45 mg / dL “.

    Your total cholesterol score is calculated using the equation: HDL level + LDL level + 20% of your triglyceride level.

What are the causes of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol can be caused by several conditions including:

  • genetic predisposition (hereditary or familial hypercholesterolemia);
  • overweight/obesity;
  • incorrect nutrition;
  • smoke;
  • poor physical activity;
  • presence of some metabolic diseases, such as diabetes 

These are factors that, in addition to causing high cholesterol levels, affect the general health of the body.

How to prevent high cholesterol at the table

« Paying attention to the foods to be brought to the table is the first step to take to prevent high cholesterol. Here’s what to do:

  • reduce total fatty acids, especially saturated fats (present in foods of animal origin such as milk and cheeses, lard, butter, pork, beef, cured meats) and hydrogenated fats (margarines and products containing them, to be preferred instead is the extra virgin olive oil );
  • encourage the consumption of foods rich in omega-3 (fatty acids that promote the lowering of “bad” cholesterol) such as blue fish, dried fruit, oil seeds, etc …
  • reduce the consumption of carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (refined cereals, simple sugars, such as sweets, candies, pastries, etc.), to be replaced instead with whole carbohydrates;
  • increase the consumption of foods rich in fiber : vegetables, legumes and fruit;
  • prefer light cooking methods such as steam, griddle, oven;
  • reduce alcohol consumption;
  • drink a lot of water”.

The Mediterranean diet today represents a complete and varied diet that allows you to consume all the foods available, preferring those in season. The foresight to pay attention to the quantity of the portions that must satisfy personal energy needs is always valid.

Risks of High Cholesterol

When it is present in physiological quantities, cholesterol is important since it is involved in several fundamental processes for the functioning of the organism. Otherwise, its presence in excessive quantities constitutes ONE of the risk factors (not the only, nor the worst) for cardiovascular diseases such as ischemia and heart attack.

For an estimate of cardiovascular risk, the guidelines tell us not to look only at the total cholesterol value. Instead, it is more appropriate to consider the relationship between total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. This value should never exceed 5 in men and 4.5 in women “.

In general, therefore, cholesterol is a fatty substance with important functions in the body, but in the case of high levels can represent a health risk. Maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle and associating a regular check of its presence in the blood is the most effective way to prevent hypercholesterolemia.



4th Professional Medical Student. Karachi Medical and Dental College.

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