If you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease or you just want to keep your heart healthy, you’ve probably been told to “watch your cholesterol”. The type of cholesterol that puts you at risk for plaque-lined arteries is LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and diet plays an important role. How are you keeping your plumbing clog-free?
What is Plaque?
Plaque is a fatty, waxy substance made up of materials, such as fat, cholesterol, calcium, waste products from cells, and fibrin (a clotting agent). When plaque clogs your arteries, it can partially or totally block blood flow through ANY of your arteries, such as your pelvis, legs, arms, or kidneys — not just your heart and brain.
Atherosclerosis can precipitate various conditions, including:
- Coronary heart disease (plaque in arteries in or leading to the heart)
- Angina (chest pain from reduced blood flow to the heart muscle)
- Carotid artery disease and stroke (plaque in neck arteries supplying blood to the brain)
- Peripheral artery disease, or PAD (plaque in arteries of the extremities, especially the legs); hardening of arteries from excess LDL cholesterol can cause numbness in your legs or feet.
- Chronic kidney disease
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol itself isn’t bad. Your body needs cholesterol — it’s a fatty, waxy substance that:
- Makes hormones (e.g., estrogen, progesterone, testosterone)
- Makes vitamin D
- Makes digestive fluids
- Builds healthy cells
- Protects nerve cells
- Enables organs (such as your brain) to function properly
Your liver makes the cholesterol your body needs and some comes from the foods you eat. Cholesterol can’t dissolve in blood, so it’s enveloped by proteins which enable them to travel in your blood.
What is LDL?
The cholesterol that makes up plaque and builds up on the walls of your blood vessels is LDL or “low-density lipoprotein”. Too much LDL circulating in your blood increases your risk of a heart attack and stroke, so it’s known as the “bad cholesterol”.
Basically, LDL is a ‘microscopic blob’ with a cholesterol center packaged inside of protein. These protein packages are called “lipoproteins”. But LDL’s don’t just carry cholesterol, they also carry triglycerides, fat-soluble vitamins, and antioxidants.