What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood. Your body needs cholesterol, but only a little bit. Too much cholesterol can lead to serious problems such as a heart attack or stroke.

Key points about cholesterol

  1. Cholesterol is made by your liver and is also found in some foods,  especially animal products. 
  2. You can find out your cholesterol level by having a blood test.  
  3. If you have high cholesterol, you need to make healthy lifestyle changes to help lower it.  
  4. If making lifestyle changes doesn’t lower your cholesterol, you may need to take medicine. 

What is cholesterol? 

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in every cell in your body. Your body cells use cholesterol as an essential building material. Cholesterol is also used  to make vitamin D, hormones and bile. It is needed for digestion and healthy brain function. 

Your liver makes most of the cholesterol in your body. You also get cholesterol from the food you eat, especially animal products like meat, eggs, butter, cheese and milk. Fruits, vegetables and grains don't have any cholesterol.

What types of cholesterol are there? 

Cholesterol is packaged up with proteins when it travels around your bloodstream. These packages are called lipoproteins (‘lipo’ is another word for fat).  

There are main types of cholesterol: 

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – commonly known as bad cholesterol It carries cholesterol from your liver into your bloodstream, where it can stick to your blood vessels and cause damage. 
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol commonly known as good cholesterol. It carries the cholesterol in your blood back to your liver, where it is broken down. 

An easy way to remember this is LDL starts with L for ‘lousy’ and HDL starts with H for ‘healthy’. 

When people talk about having high cholesterol, they are usually referring to LDL cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol increase your risk of having heart disease.  

How much cholesterol do you need? 

You only need a little bit of cholesterol for your body to function well. Cholesterol can build up in your body from childhood. Too much cholesterol can cause the arteries that carry blood around your body to become stiffer, narrower or clogged. This can lead to serious problems such as a heart attack or stroke. 

How do you know if your cholesterol is high? 

You can find out what your cholesterol level is by having a blood test. You won't have any symptoms that tell you your cholesterol is high.

What should I do if I have high cholesterol? 

If a blood test shows you have high cholesterol, talk to your healthcare provider. They will advise you about healthy lifestyle changes you can make. If making lifestyle changes below doesn’t lower your cholesterol, you may need to take medicine.

Learn more about 
high cholesterol 

Reference

  1. What is cholesterol? Heart Foundation, NZ

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in New Zealand since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. Alice has a special interest in preventative health and self-care, which she is building on by studying for the Diploma of Public Health with the University of Otago in Wellington.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP, Wellington Last reviewed: 21 May 2021