Bad Cholesterol or LDL Cholesterol: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Updated on & Medically Reviewed by Dr Lalitha

LDL cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, is often referred to as the "bad" cholesterol. It's one of the two main types of lipoproteins that transport cholesterol throughout your bloodstream.

Here's a breakdown of its role and potential risks:

Function of LDL:

Lipoproteins are particles made of protein and fat. LDL has a higher proportion of fat, making it carry the most cholesterol to cells throughout your body.

Some amounts of this cholesterol is essential for various bodily functions, like hormone production, cell membrane formation, and bile acid production and is required only in smaller quantities, excess of this is not good.

What Leads to High LDL Cholesterol Levels in the Body?


  • Saturated Fat: Found in fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and processed foods, saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol. Aim for less than 10% of your daily calories from saturated fat.
  • Trans Fat: Found in some fried foods, baked goods, and margarine, trans fat significantly increases LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL, the "good" cholesterol. Avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list.
  • Simple Carbohydrates: Refined sugars and processed carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, and pastries can lead to rapid blood sugar spikes and increase LDL cholesterol production. Choose whole grains, fruits, and vegetables instead.
  • Excessive Cholesterol Intake: While dietary cholesterol has less impact than saturated and trans fats, consuming large amounts of animal products like red meat and organ meats can still contribute to higher LDL levels.
  • Excessive Calorie Intake: Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for high LDL cholesterol. Maintaining a healthy weight through balanced diet and exercise is crucial.

Lifestyle Habits:

  • Physical Inactivity: Regular exercise boosts HDL cholesterol and helps manage weight, both of which benefit LDL levels. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
  • Smoking: Smoking damages blood vessels and raises both LDL and total cholesterol. Quitting smoking is one of the most effective ways to improve cholesterol levels and overall health.
  • Chronic Stress: Stress hormones can promote LDL production and contribute to unhealthy eating habits that further impact cholesterol levels. Manage stress through relaxation techniques, meditation, or seeking professional help if needed.
  • Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Regular heavy drinking can raise LDL and lower HDL levels. Moderate alcohol intake (one drink per day for women, two for men) is recommended.
  • Certain Medical Conditions: Conditions like hypothyroidism, polycystic ovary syndrome, and type 2 diabetes can affect cholesterol levels. Proper management of these conditions is crucial.

Remember, these factors often work together to influence LDL levels. Focusing on a healthy overall lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management, and avoiding harmful habits like smoking is the most effective way to keep your LDL cholesterol in check and promote heart health.

Range of LDL Cholesterol in the Body:

The normal range for LDL cholesterol can vary slightly depending on individual factors and risk for cardiovascular disease. However, here's a general breakdown:

Healthy LDL Levels:

  • Optimal: Less than 100 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter)
  • Near Optimal: 100-129 mg/dL
  • Borderline High: 130-159 mg/dL

High LDL Levels:

  • High: 160-189 mg/dL
  • Very High: 190 mg/dL and above

Negative Impact of High LDL Levels on the Body:

High levels of LDL cholesterol, often called "bad cholesterol," can have significant negative impacts on various organs and bodily functions.

Here's a breakdown of the potential harms:

1. Artery Clogging and Plaque Buildup:

  • LDL particles circulate in your bloodstream. High levels lead to excess cholesterol deposition in the walls of arteries, forming fatty deposits called plaque.
  • This plaque buildup narrows your arteries, restricting blood flow to vital organs like the heart, brain, and legs.

2. Consequences of Restricted Blood Flow:

  • Heart Disease: Reduced blood flow to the heart muscle due to clogged arteries can lead to angina (chest pain), heart attack, or even heart failure.
  • Stroke: If plaque blocks an artery supplying blood to the brain, it can cause a stroke, damaging brain tissue and potentially leading to disability or death.
  • Peripheral Artery Disease: When arteries supplying blood to the legs become narrowed, it can cause pain, cramps, and even tissue death in severe cases.

3. Additional Risks:

  • High Blood Pressure: Increased plaque buildup can stiffen arteries, raising blood pressure and further stressing the cardiovascular system.
  • Inflammation: Chronic inflammation in the arteries, associated with high LDL levels, contributes to plaque formation and overall cardiovascular risk.

Tips to Keep the 'Bad Cholesterol' / 'LDL Levels' Low:

Keeping your LDL levels in check is crucial for promoting long-term health and reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems.

Here are some key strategies you can adopt:

Dietary Changes:

  • Prioritize Unsaturated Fats: Choose foods rich in healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish. These fats can help lower LDL and raise HDL ("good") cholesterol.
  • Limit Saturated and Trans Fats: Reduce intake of fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and processed foods high in saturated and trans fats. These significantly increase LDL cholesterol.
  • Choose Whole Grains and Fiber: Opt. for whole grains over refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta. Fiber helps lower LDL and cholesterol absorption.
  • Increase Fruits and Vegetables: Fill your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants and dietary fiber, which support overall health and heart health.
  • Limit Cholesterol Intake: Moderate consumption of animal products like red meat and organ meats, which contain cholesterol.

Lifestyle Modifications:

  • Regular Exercise: Engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, like brisk walking, swimming, or cycling. Exercise helps boost HDL and manage weight, both beneficial for LDL levels.
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for high LDL. Focus on a sustainable weight management plan through healthy diet and exercise.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking significantly damages blood vessels and raises LDL. Quitting is one of the most effective ways to improve cholesterol levels and overall health.
  • Manage Stress: Chronic stress can increase LDL production and unhealthy eating habits. Practice relaxation techniques, meditation, or seek professional help to manage stress levels.
  • Limit Alcohol Consumption: Moderate alcohol intake (one drink per day for women, two for men) is recommended. Excessive alcohol consumption can raise LDL and lower HDL.

Additional Tips:

  • Get Regular Cholesterol Screenings: Consult your doctor for regular cholesterol checks to monitor LDL levels and assess your risk.
  • Consider Dietary Supplements: Consult a doctor if you might benefit from adding certain supplements like psyllium fiber or plant sterols, which may help lower LDL in some individuals.
  • Seek Professional Guidance: If lifestyle changes are insufficient, your doctor may recommend medication like statins to lower LDL effectively.

Remember, consistency is key! Implementing these strategies consistently into your lifestyle can significantly improve your LDL levels and protect your heart health in the long run.


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Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please talk to a healthcare professional.

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