When it comes to managing cholesterol levels, the biggest concern for most is keeping your numbers down. But can your cholesterol be too low? Let’s take a look.
We’ve all heard about high cholesterol, and most of us know that having it is a major health concern. Too much cholesterol in the bloodstream is closely linked with cardiovascular disease, as high levels contribute to the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries.
This can interrupt the flow of blood to vital organs, and can result in a heart attack or stroke. All doctors will tell you to aim for low cholesterol to reduce the risk of this happening. But can your cholesterol be too low? Let’s take a look.
What Is Cholesterol and What Does It Do?
First it is important to understand what cholesterol is and how it functions in the body. If you’d like to read a more in-depth explanation, you can read our guide on what is cholesterol. But here’s a quick rundown.
Cholesterol is an insoluble waxy substance that is carried around the body in the blood. Our liver naturally produces most of the cholesterol we need, but it also comes from what what we consume.
Despite common conceptions, cholesterol is vital to bodily function, and we could not live without it. It is found every cell of our body, and is a crucial building block in cell membranes. It’s also used to make vitamin D, a range of important hormones, including testosterone and estrogen, and stomach acids, which are vital for breaking down the food we eat.
The Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol travels around the body in packages of fats and proteins known as a lipoproteins. There are two main types of these, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
LDL is what is known as bad cholesterol. Yes, our body requires LDL to transport cholesterol from the liver to parts of the body that need it. However, an excess of LDL in the bloodstream can lead to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries (called plaque).
HDL, on the other hand, is known as good cholesterol. It is what collects excess cholesterol and transports it to the liver to be broken down and removed. It can be considered as a protective mechanism in your bloodstream.
Can Your Cholesterol Be Too Low?
Your total cholesterol is the overall amount of cholesterol found in your blood. It consists of a composite reading of your LDL, HDL, and 20 percent of triglycerides (a type of fat found in the bloodstream).
In a 2013 health survey on cholesterol, the Australian Bureau of Statistics defined abnormal levels of each component as the following:
HDL – Generally speaking, the higher this number the better. Less than 1.0 mmol/L for men and less than 1.3 mmol/L for women is considered abnormal.
LDL – Generally speaking, the lower this number the better. LDL cholesterol greater than or equal to 3.5 mmol/L is considered abnormal.
Triglycerides – Your triglyceride levels should be below 2.0 mmol/L.
But what if your reading is low? Is this an issue?
Understandably, there hasn’t been anywhere near as much research into the effects of having low cholesterol as there has been on high cholesterol, so there is still much yet to discover. However, there have been some studies on the subject.
One particularly study found that, even in cases of very low LDL cholesterol, “critical capacities of steroid hormone and bile acid production are preserved”, which is good.
However, it also found that very low levels of LDL cholesterol may be associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety (possibly linked with decreased vitamin A production), cancer, and premature birth or low birth weight if cholesterol is low while pregnant. However, these connections require further research.
Although having low cholesterol is unlikely, and the evidence to suggest it is linked with chronic illness is inadequate, it is still important to be aware of your cholesterol levels by having them checked every 4-6 years.
Having high cholesterol should be the primary concern, and the possibility of having low cholesterol should not be a deterrent from doing everything you can to keep your numbers down. However, if you’re feeling the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or instability, low cholesterol might be a factor you want to consider.
References avaliable on request.