Cholesterol has a bad reputation due to its association with high rates of heart disease. Even though you often hear about cholesterol in a bad light, it actually plays an essential role in helping your body operate normally.
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Cholesterol creates various hormones in your body, including estrogen and testosterone. It plays a crucial role in making vitamin D and is even involved in developing new cellular membranes as your body cells multiply. It is vital for building these new cellular membranes, the outer surfaces of the cells.
Cholesterol travels through your body through your bloodstream, helping out where needed. As cholesterol is a fat-like substance and is therefore not soluble in water, it takes the form of lipoproteins.¹
These lipoproteins are globular proteins that contain the essential fat inside. There are two primary types of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are often referred to as “bad” cholesterol as they can build up as plaques in your arteries, clogging them and restricting the flow of blood to the rest of your body.
When LDL plaque builds up in your blood vessels, it may trigger the formation of blood clots when they break off, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.
A stroke occurs when a blood clot, which can contain cholesterol, cuts off the blood supply to an area of the brain. This can cause temporary or sometimes permanent neurologic damage, depending on how quickly the blood clot dissolves or is removed. Immediate medical care is vital if a stroke is suspected.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are the “good” cholesterol as they help clear LDL from your blood, preventing blockages and lowering the risk of a stroke.
While your liver can make all the cholesterol your body needs to get by, it is estimated that roughly 20% of your cholesterol comes from the foods you eat. Dietary cholesterol is primarily found in eggs, red meat, and poultry and not so much in plant-based foods or similar items.
Your cholesterol is too low when the lack of cholesterol available limits your bodily functions.
As mentioned above, cholesterol is essential for cellular membranes, the synthesis of hormones, and making vitamin D. Without enough cholesterol, these functions are slowed down or stopped, which can cause significant problems if it becomes too severe.
That being said, your body is adept at managing your cholesterol levels, even in the presence of complications. If you are concerned about low cholesterol, you should speak with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Typically, low cholesterol is seen as a good thing, assuming it isn’t so low as to interfere with normal bodily functions. Some medications, like statins, are known to lower cholesterol but are usually prescribed when cholesterol is too high.
Diet and exercise are two other ways cholesterol can be lowered.
High cholesterol may display no symptoms but is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Low cholesterol, on the other hand, is much harder to detect without a blood test. The symptoms of low cholesterol are still being investigated, but a correlation between low cholesterol and poor mental health has been observed.
Conditions like depression and anxiety are more common in those with low cholesterol and come with symptoms like nervousness, confusion, agitation, difficulty making decisions, and changes in mood, sleep, or eating patterns.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting a blood test to ensure you’ve got enough HDL cholesterol in your body.
Diagnosing low cholesterol can be done with a simple blood test.
Your doctor or phlebotomist will take a small blood sample and send it to the lab to be tested for the amount and types of cholesterol present. You should hear back within a few days, and your doctor will help you interpret the results and propose a plan of action.
Your LDL cholesterol level should ideally be below 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) but above 50 mg/dL. Low HDL cholesterol is anything below 40 mg/dL. You are also deemed to have low cholesterol if your total cholesterol is below 120 mg/dL.
Total cholesterol is calculated using your LDL and HDL cholesterol and 20% of your triglycerides, another type of fat found in your bloodstream.
The risk of very low cholesterol levels is that your body will not be able to operate as it normally would. Despite the potential adverse effects of low cholesterol, your body is adept at making do with what it has, meaning it’s difficult for your body to start running low.
That said, avoiding having low cholesterol whenever possible is still best. Low cholesterol has been linked to poor mental health² and conditions like depression and anxiety, and sometimes even.³
Despite the correlation between low cholesterol and poor mental health, it hasn’t been found that low cholesterol can cause these conditions; rather, those with these conditions are more likely to have low cholesterol.
Low cholesterol has been loosely linked with multiple severe health conditions.⁴ It is a risk factor for poor mental health and pregnancy complications like low birth weight and premature birth.
If you are pregnant or concerned about these symptoms or your cholesterol levels, it is a good idea to talk to a doctor for some peace of mind.
Low cholesterol isn’t a common problem for most people as they get more than enough cholesterol from the foods they eat in combination with what their liver produces.
Given that your cholesterol needs aren’t dependent on the cholesterol in your foods if you have low cholesterol, there is likely a problem that isn’t your diet.
Some medications can lower your cholesterol below the recommended levels. If you are experiencing low cholesterol, chances are you’ve found out because a doctor ran a blood test for you.
They should be able to offer advice or an action plan for the next step. If you are taking a cholesterol-lowering medication, they will likely adjust your dosage to prevent your cholesterol from getting too low.
Having a low cholesterol level in your blood is an uncommon problem, so steps rarely need to be taken to correct it.
The best option is to keep yourself healthy so your body can operate optimally. Preventing low cholesterol is as easy as eating healthy foods.
By ensuring you’re getting all the nutrients and fluids you need, your liver will be able to produce all the cholesterol that your body needs and keep you happy and healthy.
Some medications like statins can lower your cholesterol below normal levels. If you are on one of these medications, your doctor or healthcare professional will be aware of this effect and monitor it with regular blood tests and dosage adjustments should they be needed.
If you’re concerned about any of the symptoms of low cholesterol described above, it may be time to see a doctor. Healthcare professionals can advise and assist with any cholesterol-related problems, including ordering a blood test to confirm your suspicions.
Low cholesterol has been linked to poor mental health and conditions like depression and anxiety, so don’t wait for your symptoms to worsen before talking to a doctor. It’s a simple test to check your cholesterol levels and do what needs to be done.
Cholesterol plays an essential role in your body, helping create hormones, cellular membranes, and vitamin D. It travels through your body via blood in the form of lipoproteins that contain the fat inside.
Low cholesterol is a rare problem, as your liver is fully capable of creating all the cholesterol your body needs to function normally. There are few noticeable symptoms of low cholesterol, so if you are concerned, you should speak to your healthcare professional for them to investigate.
Treatment of low cholesterol is relatively simple and generally includes changes to your diet and exercise routine but may involve medication if your doctor recommends it.
Cholesterol levels | National Institute of Health: National Library of Medicine
How it’s made: Cholesterol production in your body | Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School
Biochemistry, high density lipoprotein | National Institute of Health: National Library of Medicine
Low HDL cholesterol | National Institute of Health: National Library of Medicine
High cholesterol: Overview | National Institute of Health: National Library of Medicine