What Is a Normal, Healthy Cholesterol Level?

by Dr. David Williams
Filed Under: Cholesterol, Heart Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Learn why it’s better to focus on reducing risk factors than to focus on a number

Determining what a normal blood cholesterol level is may seem easy, but it’s not as simple as you would think. There are several different types of cholesterol to consider, and experts keep changing what they consider the ideal levels to be.

A prime example was when our National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in 2004 suggested that anyone with LDL cholesterol of more than 100 mg/dL needed to be treated, replacing the previous recommendation of 130 mg/dL. The American Heart Association quickly agreed, and millions of otherwise healthy individuals in this country were instantly “at risk”—and candidates for cholesterol-lowering prescription medication.

The Truth About Cholesterol Guidelines

Cholesterol ratios can be helpful (e.g., the amount of HDL cholesterol as compared to the amount of total cholesterol) in determining risk, but the truth is that no one knows the best cholesterol levels for optimal health. This is one of the reasons why it’s far more helpful to focus on the known causes of heart disease than on hitting a specific cholesterol number.

If your cholesterol level is in the 300s or higher, you should certainly address it. The more total cholesterol you have, the more there is to become oxidized and collect in your arteries. Levels at or around 200 or so shouldn’t cause you concern, though. A healthy diet and adequate physical activity will keep your blood lipid levels in the normal range.

A Special Note to Women About Cholesterol Testing

You probably don’t know about this, but it may significantly affect the outcome of your next cholesterol test.

Researchers have found that a woman’s cholesterol level can vary as much as 20 percent depending on what phase of her menstrual cycle she is in. In a study of healthy, regularly menstruating women ages 18–44, HDL cholesterol levels increased and total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides dropped when estrogen levels were rising. The effect peaked and then went the other way at ovulation.

Test results for one-fifth of the women in the study exceeded the “desirable” cholesterol levels at least once. It makes you wonder just how many women are taking cholesterol medication based on misleading results.

More Dr. Williams Advice on Cholesterol

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