It may surprise you to know that cholesterol itself isn't bad. In fact, cholesterol is just one of the many substances created and used by our bodies to keep us healthy.
What is cholesterol and where does it come from?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that comes from two sources: your body and food. Your body, and especially your liver, makes all the cholesterol you need and circulates it through the blood. But cholesterol is also found in foods from animal sources, such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Your liver produces more cholesterol when you eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats.
Excess cholesterol can form plaque between layers of artery walls, making it harder for your heart to circulate blood. Plaque can break open and cause blood clots. If a clot blocks an artery that feeds the brain, it causes a stroke. If it blocks an artery that feeds the heart, it causes a heart attack.
View an animation of cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol: "good" and "bad." Too much of one type — or not enough of another — can put you at risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke. It's important to know the levels of cholesterol in your blood so that you and your doctor can determine the best strategy to lower your risk.
Making healthy eating choices and increasing exercise are important first steps in improving your cholesterol. For some people, cholesterol-lowering medication may also be needed to reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke. Use the information provided here to start a conversation with your doctor about how cholesterol affects your heart attack and stroke risk and what you can do to lower your risk.
This content was last reviewed on 04/21/2014.