AHA Scientific Position
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found among the lipids (fats) in the bloodstream and in all your body’s cells. It’s an important part of a healthy body because it’s used to form cell membranes, some hormones and is needed for other functions. But a high level of cholesterol in the blood (hypercholesterolemia) is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack.
Cholesterol and other fats can’t dissolve in the blood. They have to be transported to and from the cells by special carriers called lipoproteins. There are several kinds, but the ones to focus on are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
What is LDL cholesterol?
Low-density lipoprotein is the major cholesterol carrier in the blood. If too much LDL cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the walls of the arteries feeding the heart and brain. Together with other substances it can form plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can clog those arteries. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. A clot (thrombus) that forms near this plaque can block the blood flow to part of the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. If a clot blocks the blood flow to part of the brain, a stroke results. A high level of LDL cholesterol (160 mg/dL and above) reflects an increased risk of heart disease. If you have heart disease, your LDL cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL. That’s why LDL cholesterol is called “bad” cholesterol. Lower levels of LDL cholesterol reflect a lower risk of heart disease.
What is HDL cholesterol?
About one-third to one-fourth of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. Medical experts think HDL tends to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s passed from the body. Some experts believe HDL removes excess cholesterol from plaques and thus slows their growth. HDL cholesterol is known as “good” cholesterol because a high HDL level seems to protect against heart attack. The opposite is also true: a low HDL level (less than 40 mg/dL in men; less than 50 mg/dL in women) indicates a greater risk. A low HDL cholesterol level also may raise stroke risk.
What is Lp(a) cholesterol?
Lp(a) is a genetic variation of plasma LDL. A high level of Lp(a) is an important risk factor for developing atherosclerosis prematurely. How an increased Lp(a) contributes to heart disease isn’t clear. The lesions in artery walls contain substances that may interact with Lp(a), leading to the buildup of fatty deposits.
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