How to read your lipid panel (the right way)

The standard lipid panel consists of four different numbers – total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. LDL and HDL refer to ‘low density lipoprotein’ and ‘high density lipoprotein’ respectively. LDL and HDL are the carrier proteins for cholesterol in the body and help to make sure the fat from our diets ends up in the cells needing the energy. Triglycerides are fat molecules circulating in the bloodstream. When triglycerides in the bloodstream are abnormally elevated due to poor diet, obesity, or type 2 diabetes, there is more deposition of fat in the tissues leading to weight gain. Total cholesterol is the sum of LDL, HDL and 20% of your triglyceride level. Looking at the values of these different numbers can give valuable clues into heart disease risk and overall metabolic health.  

When assessing a lipid panel, I like to use the numbers offered by functional medicine practitioner, Dr. Catherine Shanahan, M.D. in her excellent book, Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Foods. She suggests the following optimal lab values for the standard lipid panel: 

-Triglycerides less than 150. 

-HDL greater than 45 in men and greater than 50 in women. 

-LDL: HDL ratio less than 3 to 1. 

A high total cholesterol is not concerning if the ratio of LDL to HDL is maintained below 3.  Likewise, a high LDL number does not necessarily indicate an increased risk of heart disease if the ratio is maintained. It’s important to remember the gold standard test to determine the health of your lipid cycle is the LDL particle size count. The test assesses for damage to LDL particles – a damaged LDL particle is a smaller one. Damaged LDL particles are more likely to cause inflammatory reactions in the arterial walls leading to plaque formation and atherosclerosis. The LDL particle size count is rarely ordered by physicians due to the cost, however it remains the best test for assessing heart disease risk. 

Many physicians put their patients on a class of drugs called a statin which decreases the body’s natural production of cholesterol, especially the type of cholesterol bound to LDL particles. The problem with this is cholesterol is an important building block for many cells in the body including our steroid hormones which include testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol among others. Additionally, the brain contains the highest amount of cholesterol on the body, meaning lowering cholesterol with a statin drug may impair brain function and induce cognitive decline.  Statins come with a host of side effects including muscle aches and pains, altered liver enzymes due to liver damage, and increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is why it is so important to match your most recent lipid panel up with the numbers I give above before agreeing to start taking a statin drug. In future posts I will explain some of the diet and lifestyle factors you can adopt to help normalize the levels in your lipid panel without having to take a statin drug.  

Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC.  Check out his bio here

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