First of all—what exactly is cholesterol, and why are there different kinds?  Are doctors purposely trying to confuse us?

There may in fact be a secret consortium of conspiring physicians out there, but here’s what we know: cholesterol is a waxy substance that is both produced by our bodies and found in our food. We need some cholesterol—good cholesterols—because they help allow our cells to absorb fluids and assist in manufacturing hormones and even Vitamin D. So, as you can guess, having cholesterol in your body isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but having too much of a specific kind can be.

So what exactly are these different kinds?

Living in today’s world and inundated by news (often conflicting) about health, I’m sure you’re familiar with the terms ‘good cholesterol’ and ‘bad cholesterol.’ Because cholesterols, like other fats, can’t dissolve in the blood, they have to be carried around by special substances called lipoproteins.

The Good

Good cholesterol is an easier-to-remember epithet for cholesterol carried by HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. Why is HDL cholesterol good? It seems like even the experts are confused on this subject, but there are two theories. One is that HDL carries cholesterol away from the arteries and to the liver, where it can be passed from the body. Some experts also think that HDL might be dragging cholesterol away from plaque, and in doing so, slowing its build up in arteries.

So, HDL cholesterol is good. We want more of it. In fact, the higher your HDL, the less likely you are to have a heart attack or stroke. How do you raise your HDL levels? Quitting smoking, losing excess weight and being more active all help increase HDL levels, and there are some medications out there that can help, too.

And that brings us to…

The Bad

Bad cholesterol is any cholesterol that’s carried by low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. LDL cholesterol tends to build up along the inner walls of arteries, and when combined with other substances in the blood make a hard, thick substance called plaque that can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible. The biggest danger to this buildup, though, is the possibility of a clot forming and getting stuck in the plaque—blocking the flow of blood and cutting oxygen off from vital organs. That’s right, this is often the stuff to blame for heart attacks and strokes.

There are ways to keep your bad cholesterol (LDL) levels low, though. Diet and exercise are the most commonsense ways, but if they’re just not cutting it, your doctor also has medications to lower your bad cholesterol.

Still Confused?

Don’t worry. Your doctor or a stroke care professional can explain all of this—and give you your blood cholesterol numbers by performing a simple blood test. Just remember: keep your high-density lipoprotein count (HDL cholesterol) high, and your low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) low, and just like your doctor, your mom, and your own common sense have been exhorting you your whole life—eat your veggies and take the stairs!