Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in animal tissue and is an important component to the human body. It is manufactured in the liver and carried throughout the body in the bloodstream. Problems can occur when too much cholesterol forms an accumulation of plaque on blood vessel walls, which impedes blood flow to the heart and other organs. The highest cholesterol content is found in meat, poultry, shellfish, and dairy products.


Cholesterol is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of medicine, since it has both a good side and bad side. It is necessary to digest fats from food, make hormones, build cell walls, and participate in other processes for maintaining a healthy body. When people talk about cholesterol as a medical problem, they are usually referring to high cholesterol. This can be somewhat misleading, since there are four components to cholesterol. These are:
– LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol
– HDL, the so-called good cholesterol
– triglycerides, a blood fat lipid that increases the risk for heart disease
– total cholesterol
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 90 million American adults, roughly one-half of the adult population, have elevated cholesterol levels. High LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is a major contributing factor of heart disease. The cholesterol forms plaque in the heart’s blood vessels, which restricts or blocks the supply of blood to the heart, and causes a condition called atherosclerosis. This can lead to a heart attack, resulting in damage to the heart and possibly death.
In 2001, chemical researchers found a link between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease. Reducing the amount of cholesterol in the cells appears to block attachment of senile plaques to the brain’s neurons. (The plaques begin the process that eventually kills brain neurons.) More study remains to test the effects of cholesterol on Alzheimer’s.
The population as a whole is at some risk of developing high LDL cholesterol in their lifetimes. Specific risk factors include a family history of high cholesterol, obesity, heart attack or stroke, alcoholism, and lack of regular exercise. The chances of developing high cholesterol increase after the age of 45. One of the primary causes of high LDL cholesterol is too much fat or sugar in the diet, a problem especially true in the United States. Cholesterol also is produced naturally in the liver and overproduction may occur even in people who limit their intake of high cholesterol food. Low HDL and high triglyceride levels also are risk factors for atherosclerosis.

Causes & symptoms:

There are no readily apparent symptoms that indicate high LDL or triglycerides, or low HDL. The only way to diagnose a problem is through a simple blood test. However, one general indication of high cholesterol is obesity. Another is a high-fat diet. In 2001, new research involving twins demonstrated that both genetic factors and diet contribute to cholesterol levels.


High cholesterol often is diagnosed and treated by general practitioners or family practice physicians. In some cases, the condition is treated by an endocrinologist or cardiologist. Total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels as well as the cholesterol to HDL ratio are measured by a blood test called a lipid panel. The cost of a lipid panel is generally $40-100 and is covered by most health insurance and HMO plans, including Medicare, providing there is an appropriate reason for the test. Home cholesterol testing kits are available over the counter but test only for total cholesterol. The results should only be used as a guide and if the total cholesterol level is high or low, a lipid panel should be performed by a physician. In most adults the recommended levels, measured by milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) of blood, are: total cholesterol, less than 200; LDL, less than 130; HDL, more than 35; triglycerides, 30-200; and cholesterol to HDL ratio, four to one. However, the recommended cholesterol levels may vary, depending on other risk factors such as hypertension, a family history of heart disease, diabetes, age, alcoholism, and smoking.
Doctors have always been puzzled by why some people develop heart disease while others with identical HDL and LDL levels do not. New studies indicate it may be due to the size of the cholesterol particles in the

Types Levels
Total cholesterol:
Desirable <200
Borderline 200 to 240
Undesirable >240
HDL cholesterol:
Desirable >45
Borderline 35 to 45
Undesirable <35
LDL cholesterol:
Desirable <130
Borderline 130 to 160
Undesirable >160
Ratio of total cholesterol to
HDL cholesterol:
Desirable <3
Borderline 3 to 4
Undesirable >4

bloodstream. A test called a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) LipoProfile exposes a blood sample to a magnetic field to determine the size of the cholesterol particles. Particle size also can be determined by a centrifugation test, where blood samples are spun very quickly to allow particles to separate and move at different distances. The smaller the particles, the greater the chance of developing heart disease. It allows physicians to treat patients who have normal or close to normal results from a lipid panel but abnormal particle size.


The primary goal of cholesterol treatment is to lower LDL to under 160 mg/dL in people without heart disease and who are at lower risk of developing it. The goal in people with higher risk factors for heart disease is less than 130 mg/dL. In patients who already have heart disease, the goal is under 100 mg/dL, according to FDA guidelines. Also, since low HDL levels increase the risks

Lining of artery
Monocytes (the largest of the white blood cells) and T-cells are attracted to the injury.


Muscle T-cell


High cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, viruses, cigarette smoking, etc., cause injuries to the lining of the artery, creating areas where higher levels of lipids are trapped.




Foam cell


Further injury is inflicted by foam cells attempting to remove lipids back to the lungs, liver, spleen and lymph nodes by again passing through the lining of the artery.


The result is a fibrous lesion, made up in part of muscle cells, proteins, and collagen, that has at its center a pool of lipids and dead cells. Blood flow can be very nearly cut off by the blockage.
Monocytes, which become macrophages when they leave the bloodstream, and T-cells penetrate the lining of the artery.The macrophages soak up lipids, becoming large foam cells and distorting the inner surface of the artery. Blood flow becomes restricted.

When the arterial lining becomes separated over the growing mass of foam cells, platelets are attracted to the site and begin the process of clot formation.
The progression of atherosclerosis. (Illustration by Hans & Cassidy. The Gale Group.)
of heart disease, the goal of all patients is more than 35 mg/dL.
In both alternative and conventional treatment of high cholesterol, the first-line treatment options are exercise, diet, weight loss, and stopping smoking. Other alternative treatments include high doses of niacin, soy protein, garlic, algae, and the Chinese medicine supplement Cholestin (a red yeast fermented with rice).
Diet and exercise
Since a large number of people with high cholesterol are overweight, a healthy diet and regular exercise are probably the most beneficial natural ways to control cholesterol levels. In general, the goal is to substantially reduce or eliminate foods high in animal fat. These include meat, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products. Several specific diet options are beneficial. One is the vegetarian diet. Vegetarians typically get up to 100% more fiber and up to 50% less cholesterol from food than non-vegetarians. The vegetarian low-cholesterol diet consists of at least six servings of whole grain foods, three or more servings of green leafy vegetables, two to four servings of fruit, two to four servings of legumes, and one or two servings of non-fat dairy products daily.
A second diet is the Asian diet, with brown rice being the staple. Other allowable foods include fish, vegetables such as bok choy, bean sprouts, and black beans. It allows for one weekly serving of meat and very few dairy products. The food is flavored with traditional Asian spices and condiments, such as ginger, chilies, turmeric, and soy sauce.

Another regimen is the low glycemic or diabetic diet, which can raise the HDL (good cholesterol) level by as much as 20% in three weeks. Low glycemic foods promote a slow but steady rise in blood sugar levels following a meal, which increases the level of HDL. They also lower total cholesterol and triglycerides. Low glycemic foods include certain fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Processed and refined foods and sugars should be avoided.
Exercise is an extremely important part of lowering bad cholesterol and raising good cholesterol. It should consist of 20-30 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise at least three times a week. Exercises that cause the heart to beat faster include fast walking, bicycling, jogging, roller skating, swimming, and walking up stairs. There also are a wide selection of aerobic programs available at gyms or on videocassette.
A number of clinical studies have indicated that garlic can offer modest reductions in cholesterol. A 1997 study by nutrition researchers at Pennsylvania State University found men who took garlic capsules for five months reduced their total cholesterol by 7% and LDL by 12%. Another study showed that seven cloves of fresh garlic a day significantly reduced LDL, as did a daily dose of four garlic extract pills. Other studies in 1997 and 1998 back up these results. However, two more recent studies have questioned the effectiveness of garlic in lowering “bad cholesterol.”
Cholestin hit the over-the-counter market in 1997 as a cholesterol-lowering dietary supplement. It is a processed form of red yeast fermented with rice, a traditional herbal remedy used for centuries by the Chinese. Two studies released in 1998 showed Cholestin lowered LDL cholesterol by 20-30%%. It also appeared to raise HDL and lower triglyceride levels. Although the supplement contains hundreds of compounds, the major active LDL-lowering ingredient is lovastatin, a chemical also found in the prescription drug Mevacor. The FDA banned Cholestin in early 1998 but a federal district court judge lifted the ban a year later, ruling the product was a dietary supplement, not a drug. It is not fully understood how the substance works and patients may want to consult with their physician before taking Cholestin.
No serious side effects have been reported, but minor side effects, including bloating and heartburn, have been reported.
Other treatments

A study released in 1999 indicated that blue-green algae contains polyunsaturated fatty acids that lower cholesterol. The algae, known as alga Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA) is available as an over-the-counter dietary supplement. Niacin, also known as nicotinic acid or vitamin B3, has been shown to reduce LDL levels by 10-20%, and raise HDL levels by 15-35%. It also can reduce triglycerides. But because an extremely high dose of niacin (2-3 grams) is needed to treat cholesterol problems, it should only be taken under a doctor’s supervision to monitor possible toxic side effects. Niacin also can cause flushing when taken in high doses. Soy protein with high levels of isoflavones also have been shown to reduce bad cholesterol by up to 10%. A daily diet that contains 62 mg of isoflavones in soy protein is recommended, and can be incorporated into other diet regimens, including vegetarian, Asian, and low glycemic. In 2003, research revealed that policosanol, a substance made from sugar cane wax or beeswax, lowered LDL cholesterol nearly 27% in study subjects in a Cuban study.

Allopathic treatment:

A wide variety of prescription medicines are available to treat cholesterol problems. These include statins such as Mevacor (lovastatin), Lescol (fluvastatin), Prava-chol (pravastatin), Zocor (simvastatin), Baycol (cervas-tatin), and Lipitor (atorvastatin) to lower LDL. A group of drugs called fibric acid derivatives are used to lower triglycerides and raise HDL. These include Lopid (gemfibrozil), Atromid-S (clofibrate), and Tricor (fenofibrate).
A new class of drugs was identified late in 2001 that work differently from the statin drugs. These drugs rely on compounds that bind to a sterol that regulates protein (called SCAP) and speds up removal of cholesterol from the plasma (the fluid part of the blood.) Doctors decide which drug to use based on the severity of the cholesterol problem, side effects, and cost.

Expected results:

High cholesterol is one of the key risk factors for heart disease. Left untreated, too much bad cholesterol can clog the blood vessels, leading to chest pain (angina), blood clots, and heart attacks. Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. By reducing LDL, people with heart disease may prevent further heart attacks and strokes, prolong and improve the quality of their lives, and slow or reverse cholesterol buildup in the arteries. In people without heart disease, lowering LDL can decrease the risk of a first heart attack or stroke.


The best way to prevent cholesterol problems is through a combination of healthy lifestyle activities, a primarily low-fat and high-fiber diet, regular aerobic exercise, not smoking, and maintaining an optimal weight. In a small 2003 Canadian study, people who ate a low-fat vegetarian diet consisting of foods that are found to help lower cholesterol dropped their levels of LDL cholesterol as much as results from some statin drugs. But for people with high risk factors for heart disease, such as a family history of heart disease, diabetes, and being over the age of 45, these measures may not be enough to prevent the onset of high cholesterol. There are studies being done on the effectiveness of some existing anti-cholesterol drugs for controlling cholesterol levels in patients who do not meet the criteria for high cholesterol but no definitive results are available.


Atherosclerosis-A buildup of fatty substances in the inner layers of the arteries.

Estrogen-A hormone that stimulates development of female secondary sex characteristics.

Glycemic-The presence of glucose in the blood. Hypertension-Abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries.

Legumes-A family of plants that bear edible seeds in pods, including beans and peas.

Lipid-Any of a variety of substances that, along with proteins and carbohydrates, make up the main structural components of living cells.

Polyunsaturated fats-A non-animal oil or fatty acid rich in unsaturated chemical bonds not associated with the formation of cholesterol in the blood.


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