Growing up, you may have only heard about cholesterol in passing. Maybe you heard someone on the radio explain how you need to keep it low, or the businessman on TV announce to everyone he encountered that he lowered his cholesterol by eating a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast.

But they don’t explain is what cholesterol actually is and how important it is for your survival.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance released by your liver and circulated through your bloodstream. The substance builds cells and cell walls, and has important natural functions for digesting foods, producing hormones, and generating vitamin D. Your liver produces all the cholesterol you need, but you also take in cholesterol from the food you eat. Now if concentrations in the blood get too high, it becomes a silent danger with no clear warning signs or symptoms that puts you at risk of heart attack.

There are two types of cholesterol circulating throughout your body: good and bad. Higher-density lipoprotein (HDL), the good cholesterol, acts as a scavenger by carrying the bad cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver to be broken down and passed from the body. When your HDL levels are higher, you’re good to go.

However the bad cholesterol, known as low-density lipoproteins (LDL), contributes to atherosclerosis, which is a process of plaque and fatty buildups in the arteries. You get this bad cholesterol from processed items that have saturated fats and trans fats, which cause your liver to produce more cholesterol than you normally need. When this happens, fatty deposits develop in your blood vessels while plaque builds up, narrowing the arteries and making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your to brain and heart. Oxygen-rich blood not getting to your heart fast enough increases the risk of you suffering a heart attack, where blood not getting to your brain fast enough increases your chances of suffering a stroke.

High cholesterol is one major controllable risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Since cholesterol circulates in the blood, and as blood cholesterol levels rise, so does the risk to your health. Other risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure, obesity or diabetes only increase your risk, and the more risk factors you have, the higher your overall risk.

Since high cholesterol is a controllable risk factor, don’t ignore it. Instead, do something about it! It’s incredibly important to see your doctor and have your cholesterol tested so that you can know your levels. From there, you can take the necessary actions to changing your habits –eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintain a healthy weight, stop smoking– and get your cholesterol to a safe and manageable level.

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