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Learning About Cholesterol: A New Perspective

By April 18, 2017August 31st, 2021Well-being
A man and woman enjoy a healthy breakfast, smiling

Cholesterol can’t swim, so it needs boats to help it get around inside our bodies. I learned this today.

I was looking up something about cholesterol for work and feeling like I’d done this a million times and read this same material a million times and was beating myself up a little that I couldn’t seem to keep it all straight. It was all just so confusing!

Then I stumbled across that tidbit, and something clicked.

Cholesterol in your body

Actually, what I learned is that cholesterol can’t dissolve in the blood and, thus, needs a transportation system to get it from place to place. But something really did click when I read that, and I like the mental image of swimming (or actually, of not swimming) and boats, so I’m going with that.

So, about those cholesterol boats . . .

We’ve all heard of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol…but that doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the real difference. Try thinking of HDLs and LDLs as two types of boats that ferry the cholesterol around inside our bodies.

It’s the destination that counts

LDLs pick up cholesterol and putt along with it through our bodies. If there are too many LDLs congesting the boating lanes, they get tired and weigh anchor in the arteries. Left in the arteries, the cholesterol builds up into a thick, hard coating that narrows the blood vessels and makes it harder for the blood to pass through. This narrowing of the arteries is what can lead to all sorts of serious health problems, among which are heart attacks and stroke.

The HDLs are the other type of boat. As they travel through the arteries, they collect the cholesterol that’s been stranded by the LDLs and deliver it to the liver for disposal.

Translating the Doctor-Speak

What I’m getting at with this boat visual is that cholesterol is just cholesterol. Despite what many sources out there seem to imply, there’s only one type. Labeling it “good cholesterol” or “bad cholesterol” is simply a confusing, shorthand way to explain that your body handles cholesterol in different ways, which in turn affects your health in different ways.

So when your doctor talks with you about the results of your cholesterol screening and your levels of LDLs and HDLs, what she’s really concerned with is how and where the cholesterol in your blood is being transported and whether you have too many or too few of each type of boat. (If you’re like me and like tricks to help you remember, think “L” for loitering LDLs and “H” for helpful HDLs that pick up the loiterers and get them on their way.)

Now enough with the boats already.

4 Ways You Can Affect Your Cholesterol Numbers

I’m not a doctor, but I’ll bet you I can rattle off a list of things they will always tell you are key to healthy living. I’m sure you can, too. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to list four of the biggies yet again but in the context of what they can do for the MasterCrafts and Bayliners cruising around in our bloodstreams (I lied about being done with the boats).

  1. Be mindful of your diet. Choose healthier fats. While all fat in your diet will increase the amount of total cholesterol in your blood, each type of fat affects our bodies differently. Eating saturated fats and trans-fats increases the number of LDLs in your blood, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help reduce LDLs and increase HDLs. Note: In Ye Olde Times, experts warned us away from foods containing high amounts of cholesterol (like eggs), believing such foods would raise the level of cholesterol in our blood and, thus, our risk for related health problems. Increasingly, however, research suggests that it’s the type of fat we eat and not the amount of cholesterol we consume that impacts the amount of cholesterol in the blood.
  2. Exercise. Even moderate exercise can help raise HDL levels.
  3. Get enough sleep. Some studies have shown a link between getting too little sleep and both high LDL levels and low HDL levels. All you sleep-deprived moms out there, take note . . .
  4. Quit smoking. Smoking lowers HDL levels.
  5. Wear your seatbelt. OK, that has no bearing on cholesterol, but it’s just good advice.

Please note: Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.


Kathy Izumi

I’m Kathy. I love pen and paper, glue and glitter, trees and tents, chopping, mincing, stirring, kneading. I run a little, swim a little, and curse a little (especially when I’m too ambitious about the other two). I have one husband, two young kids, and until quite recently, two Madagascar hissing cockroaches in an aquarium in the living room. I’ve lived here and there across the U.S. and the world and am happiest huddled in a corner of the couch reading mystery novels.