A cholesterol test, also called a lipid profile or lipid panel, measures the level of cholesterol in your blood. A basic cholesterol screening also breaks down your cholesterol levels by type, and usually includes a measurement of triglycerides. Triglycerides are not cholesterol, but are another form of fat that may be harmful in the bloodstream.
A cholesterol test may be performed by itself, or it may be done as part of a larger blood panel ordered by your doctor during routine physical exam. It is done through a simple blood draw, and your doctor may require you to fast for several hours before the test. This simple test may save your life, by alerting you to potential problems and seeking further medical treatment if needed.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that we must have to live. Our bodies use cholesterol to build cell walls, to help make hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, and to help the body digest fatty foods. However, it becomes dangerous when we have too much in our blood. If there is more cholesterol than the body requires, the excess can stick to the walls of the arteries. After time, these cells build up and can lead to decreased circulation. This is especially dangerous in the arteries around the heart, where partial or total blockage of arteries can cause a heart attack.
There are two basic types of cholesterol. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is also referred to as "good" cholesterol because it removes cholesterol that has built up in the arteries. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is the "bad" cholesterol that has a tendency to stick to artery walls. Triglycerides also play a role in blocking arteries. To reduce the risk of heart disease and blood vessel problems, HDL levels should be high and LDL and triglyceride levels should be low.
The American Heart Association recommends that for optimal heart health, total cholesterol should be under 200, HDL should be 60 or above, LDL should be under 100, and triglycerides under 150. However, some researchers suggest that the ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol may be more important than the actual numbers in determining your risk for heart disease. Your cholesterol test may include a ratio of HDL to total cholesterol; a ratio of under four is optimal. You may also see a ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol, and in this measurement, anything above 0.3 is optimal.
If your cholesterol test indicates that you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about treatment options. There are many ways to lower cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. These include avoiding saturated fats in your diet, eating more fruits and vegetables, shedding excess body fat, and participating in regular physical activity. If diet and exercise don't lower your levels enough, there are many prescription medications that can help. You and your doctor will decide the best treatment plan for your situation.