Medically Reviewed by Vincenta Faulkner, RD, CNSC, CCTD
By its most simple definition, non-HDL cholesterol includes all of the “bad” cholesterol in the body.
This moniker’s specification distinguishes non-HDL cholesterol as a certain equation and implies that not all cholesterol is bad. The waxy lipid known as cholesterol is generally necessary and normally present in our bodies. In fact, our bodies produce cholesterol in the liver and need cholesterol to survive.
Our individual cells need cholesterol to comprise and guard their membranes, and communicate with other cells. On a larger scale, our digestive system needs the bile that the liver produces from cholesterol to aid in digestive processes. Our bodies also enlist cholesterol’s help to produce some hormones as well as vitamin D.
So how could something so natural have a bad side?
Let’s discover more about non-HDL cholesterol with Zizi.
What Is Non-HDL Cholesterol?
Non-HDL cholesterol refers to all the cholesterol that certain types of lipoproteins (LDL and VLDL) carry. Whereas HDL cholesterol is beneficial, non-HDL cholesterol can contribute to health risks when levels are too high.
A Cellular Road Trip
A simple way to think about the effects of different lipoproteins is to compare them to a road trip. The highways and roads you route for your trip are your blood vessels. Your potential passengers that you choose for companionship are cholesterol and triglycerides; the car or cars that your group rides in are your lipoproteins.
Right off the bat, it’s easy to see how some car options and some passenger options for companionship are not as ideal, and may even negatively affect your road trip experience.
Similarly, while some cholesterol is beneficial, and even necessary, for proper functioning, other forms of cholesterol can be harmful. This basic idea can help you better understand the way that cholesterol impact your overall wellbeing.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
In the same way, cholesterol and its associated carriers have the potential to adversely affect your body. Cholesterol is found naturally in your blood, but it does not dissolve in blood because it is a lipid. It does need help moving around in the blood, so it elicits molecules called lipoproteins as its chauffeurs.
Lipoproteins in the blood are how cholesterol moves throughout the body. They are molecules that carry both cholesterol and triglycerides.
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is one of several types of lipoproteins, or cholesterol and triglyceride transporter molecules. This type of lipoprotein carries “bad” cholesterol throughout your body. A couple of other lipoprotein types include high-density lipoprotein (HDL, which carries “good” cholesterol”) and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL, which has triglycerides).
All of these lipoproteins are circulating in your body, and when you end up with too much LDL or VLDL, it can lead to health risks.
What Makes the Bad Cholesterol “Bad”
You might be wondering what exactly makes cholesterol “bad” in the first place. You can consider cholesterol bad if it increases your risk for heart disease, and LDL does just this. LDL can stack up cholesterol on your artery walls as very fatty deposits, forming plaque that eventually narrows your artery walls.
The walls ultimately become so narrow they create a dangerous build-up called atherosclerosis, which may, in turn, lead to hardened arteries and blockages. As these blockages progress and become more severe, you may be at an increased risk for health events like heart attack and stroke. Over time, the blockages may build up enough to restrict blood flow entirely.
Similarly, cholesterol is “bad” if it deposits on the artery walls and poses a threat of heart problems; on the contrary, it’s referred to as “good” if it moves away from the blood vessels and instead goes to the liver for removal.
HDL is the “good” cholesterol that transports cholesterol away from your arteries and to your liver, where it can be removed. HDL can even help reverse atherosclerosis build-up and decrease your risk for potential heart disease.
Non-HDL cholesterol, then, is just all the bad cholesterol that the other types of lipoproteins (i.e. the non-HDL ones) carry. This is why too much non-HDL cholesterol is a huge risk to your heart’s health — the ugly truth is that countless research and medical studies associate non-HDL cholesterol with a much higher risk for heart disease.
What Causes High Levels of Non-HDL Cholesterol?
Non-HDL cholesterol (also referred to as non-HDL-C) can end up in your system due to various causes. Building a better understanding of the factors that contribute to bad cholesterol can help you make certain lifestyle changes that may minimize your risk of health events related to high cholesterol. Let’s take a look.
Various lifestyle choices and factors such as a diet high in bad fats and carbohydrates, obesity, sedentary tendencies, and smoking often contribute to increases in non-HDL cholesterol. High carbohydrate diets that lack good fats can cause non-HDL cholesterol to rise markedly.
These diets often include trans and saturated fats in large amounts, with sources including milk, meat, cheese, and butter products, as well as fried, fast, or processed foods.
Likewise, if you are overweight, you have a higher level of triglycerides, which links to higher levels of non-HDL-C. Obesity results in a smaller LDL receptor presence, thereby leaving more LDL in your blood. The more you sit and the less physically active you are, the more bad cholesterol your blood will likely have.
Medical Conditions and Malignancies
Hypothyroidism, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, infection, and chronic inflammation are all associated with higher non-HDL cholesterol levels in your blood.
When your thyroid is very underactive (hypothyroidism), you also have a much smaller LDL receptor presence, thus a much higher non-HDL-C level in your bloodstream.
If you have type 2 diabetes, it is common that your LDL levels will be at normal levels, but your overall non-HDL levels will be markedly increased. This condition’s insulin resistance is the main explanation for rising non-HDL-C.
Kidney disease, infection, and inflammation are linked to an increased VLDL production level in your bloodstream.
You have your genes to partially thank when it comes to how much cholesterol your body decides to make. Even further, your genes may also cause you to inherit a genetic disorder that complicates your body’s ability to eliminate LDL from your bloodstream.
For example, familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a disease that results from mutations in various genes, some of which have an ordinary task to produce LDL receptors. Unfortunately, people with FH have trouble removing LDL from the bloodstream, and so have high amounts of non-HDL cholesterol.
What Are Normal Non-HDL Levels, and How Do I Know Mine?
It all comes down to blood! When you visit the doctor, they might order a blood test for you that checks your cholesterol levels in your bloodstream; they might also order a lipid panel that will comprehensively indicate your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, VLDL, and triglycerides levels. A blood lipid panel will inform you of your non-HDL cholesterol levels.
The appropriate level of non-HDL cholesterol largely depends on your age and your biological sex. Zizi’s guide for assessing your own cholesterol levels can help you learn more about healthy and unhealthy cholesterol.
How Can I Reduce My Non-HDL Cholesterol Levels?
The easiest strategy to reduce your non-HDL levels is to make some lifestyle changes.
If you are not active, you can try to increase the amount of exercise you engage in each week — even just a little bit more motion in your life can help lower triglycerides and increase your good cholesterol. Exercise can also help you tackle any of your weight loss goals if you are obese.
If you regularly smoke, working to quit smoking can have a positive impact on your cholesterol levels, too. Smoking is not only bad when it comes to cholesterol, but also when it comes to mental health, immunity, sleep, and various other components of your overall health.
Another key lifestyle change you can try is to modify your diet in order to focus on healthy, well-balanced meals. Instead of eating foods full of saturated and trans fats (like red meats, rich dairy, sugary snacks, and highly processed foods), you may want to aim for fresh, whole foods with more sustaining nutritional value.
This includes foods high in fiber (fruits and vegetables), omega-3 fatty acids (fish and nuts), and plant sterols (nuts, seeds, legumes). When it comes to saturated and trans fats, you can choose lighter options, like lean meats or skim milk, and should limit your saturated fat to less than 6% of your daily calories. Focusing on whole grains rather than simple carbs like pasta can also provide you with a wider span of nutrients.
Heart Health Made Easy With Zizi
At Zizi, we are committed to making your heart health journey as easy as possible. With our Heart Health Reset Program, we give you an easy at-home heart health tool kit that allows for monthly cholesterol monitoring without the hoops.
We give you commonsense care tools to reduce and prevent high non-HDL levels, including our all-natural and FDA-claim backed heart health supplements and our heart health course.
Non-HDL cholesterol levels pose a significant threat to your heart’s health at high levels. If you have elevated cholesterol, let Zizi help you start your treatment without even leaving your house.
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