Man on phone looking up cholesterol test results

How to understand cholesterol test results

Medically reviewed on July 13, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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A cholesterol test can be an excellent way to measure your health. But if you’re new to cholesterol terminology, making sense of your results can be a puzzling process. What’s the difference between LDL vs. HDL cholesterol, and why are they good or bad? Where do triglycerides come into the picture?

Fortunately, you don’t need a medical degree to learn how to understand cholesterol test results.

To start, you’ll want to explore what a cholesterol test measures and what the different types of cholesterol mean. Then, you can dig into why the different measurements matter, gain valuable insights into your health, and take action for better wellness.

What is measured in a cholesterol test?

A cholesterol test measures your cholesterol levels to determine how much cholesterol is in your blood. [1] This test can be a vital way to determine if you are at a high risk for a heart attack or heart disease.

To gain a full picture of your cholesterol level, cholesterol tests measure four different categories:

  • Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) – Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) is nicknamed “bad cholesterol”—and for good reason. [2] A high LDL cholesterol level can build up in your arteries, potentially resulting in blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes.
  • High-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) – If LDL cholesterol functions as the villain in the world of cholesterol characters, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) is the superhero. HDL cholesterol helps remove LDL cholesterol, freeing up arteries and facilitating blood flow.
  • Triglycerides – Triglycerides are fats composed of the body’s excess calories. [3] When the body consumes more calories than it needs, these calories are converted to triglycerides, which are then stored in the body’s cells.
  • Total cholesterol – This number reveals the total cholesterol level in your body.

Now that we’ve briefly touched on these four categories, let’s take a closer look at cholesterol’s individual components.

What is HDL?

To fully understand your cholesterol numbers, it helps to know why the different kinds are considered positive or negative for your health. As stated above, HDL cholesterol is considered good cholesterol. That’s because this type of cholesterol helps perform an essential role called reverse cholesterol transport. [4]

In reverse cholesterol transport, the body moves bad cholesterol from the bloodstream into the liver where it can be eliminated. Additionally, HDL cholesterol is beneficial for the following reasons: [5]

  • HDL can provide antioxidant properties
  • It may promote anti-inflammatory responses
  • HDL can help to build cells

So, what are good cholesterol numbers? In terms of good HDL levels, healthcare providers recommend maintaining HDL levels of 60 mg/dL or greater for all people. [6] Anything less than 60 mg/DL of HDL can place you at high risk of stroke and heart attack.

You may be able to improve your HDL levels with healthy lifestyle changes, such as: [7]

  • Increased exercise
  • Improved diet
  • Quitting smoking

When it comes to a healthy diet many people question, does fish oil lower cholesterol? This does so happen to be a myth but there are other ways your diet can help improve your cholesterol level.

What is LDL?

Although we’ve deemed LDL “bad” cholesterol, LDL cholesterol also plays several key roles in your body’s healthy functions.

LDL cholesterol serves a function for your body in the following ways: [8]

  • LDL moves cholesterol where it is needed for cell repair and functioning
  • It can neutralize some toxins and bacteria
  • LDL may promote steroid hormone production

The problem with LDL cholesterol stems from its ability to build up in arteries. [9] If not enough HDL cholesterol is present to remove excess LDL cholesterol from your bloodstream, LDL cholesterol can eventually clog your arteries.

Healthcare providers recommend keeping your LDL cholesterol level below 100 mg/dL if you’re twenty years old and older. [10]

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are similar to cholesterol in that both substances are lipids [11]. However, triglycerides differ in function. Whereas cholesterol is used to build and repair cells, triglycerides provide the body with energy. [12]

When your body needs energy, it calls upon the triglycerides in your blood—those excess calories your body has stored for later use.

Problems can occur when the body stores more triglycerides than it burns. When this happens, triglycerides can harden the walls of your arteries. As a result, you may be more at risk for health issues such as: [15]

  • Stroke
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Metabolic syndrome

Healthcare providers recommend that your triglyceride level remains less than 150 mg/dL. [14]

What are the normal ranges for cholesterol?

Once you receive your cholesterol testing results, you’ll need a way to compare and understand the numbers they provide. Healthcare providers recommend your HDL, LDL, and triglycerides remain within the following ranges: [15]

  • HDL – For men, healthcare providers consider normal HDL levels to be between 40 and 60 mg/dL. For women, a normal HDL range is between 50 and 60 mg/dL.
  • LDL – For people 20 years old and older, healthcare providers consider normal LDL levels to be anything below 70 mg/dL to 129 mg/dL.
  • Triglycerides – Healthcare providers believe a triglyceride level below 150 mg/dL to be in the normal range.
  • Total cholesterol – Healthcare providers consider a total cholesterol level lower than 200 mg/dL to be in the normal, desirable range.

How to prepare for a cholesterol test

Preparing for your cholesterol test is just as important as accurately reading the results. To properly prepare for your test, healthcare providers recommend doing the following: [16]

  • If you were wondering how long to fast for cholesterol test kits, avoid drinking and eating anything but water for nine to fourteen hours before the test.
  • Avoid alcohol for 24 hours before the test.
  • Make a note of any vitamins and medications you are taking, and report them to your healthcare provider.

While preparing to take a cholesterol test through your healthcare provider is fairly straightforward, the process can be even easier with at-home lab tests. That’s because you can test from the convenience of your own home while having clear instructions to guide you. Learn more about how to test cholesterol levels at home.

Everlywell: cholesterol testing made easy

Taking a cholesterol test can help lead the way to better health—but the test itself is only half the process. You must also have the support and guidance to help you read and understand the test. In other words, you need Everlywell.

If you were wondering how to test lipids and cholesterol levels, the Cholesterol & Lipids Test from Everlywell is an at-home lab test that measures all three cholesterol categories, plus triglycerides.

All you need to do is register your kit at Everlywell.com. Then, collect your sample and mail it to our certified lab. Within days, you’ll have meaningful, personalized, and easy-to-understand test results from the comforts of your own home.

Your cholesterol test results are too important to leave to chance. Let Everlywell guide you every step of the way.

How to test cholesterol at home?

Does fish oil lower cholesterol?

HDL vs. LDL vs. triglycerides

What are good cholesterol numbers?

LDL vs. HDL cholesterol: what you need to know


References

  1. Know your numbers: Cholesterol. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  2. Biochemistry, LDL Cholesterol. StatPearls. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  3. Triglycerides: Why do they matter? Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  4. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) functionality and its relevance to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Drugs In Context. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  5. HDL cholesterol: How to boost your 'good' cholesterol. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  6. Cholesterol test. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  7. Cholesterol and Triglycerides Tests. NorthShore. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
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