Despite our society’s focus on healthy eating and a vague general understanding that we should all be striving to “lower our cholesterol,” a lot of people don’t really understand what cholesterol is and how it affects the body.
And that’s a problem — in part because there are no visible symptoms of high cholesterol, but more importantly because high cholesterol, if left untreated, can contribute to heart disease and stroke (cerebrovascular accident), two of the leading causes of death in the United States. And this problem can be classified as an epidemic — more than 35 percent of American adults have levels of cholesterol that are clinically considered too high.
Fortunately, with a bit of knowledge, it’s easy to make proactive choices and sensible lifestyle decisions that will keep you healthy and in control of your cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that everyone’s liver produces naturally. Despite being necessary for many bodily processes, it can’t travel through the bloodstream alone. It has to be carried by a particle known as a lipoprotein. There are two lipoproteins produced by the liver: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
The function of LDL is to deliver cholesterol to the cells. In contrast, HDL helps to sweep away excess LDL cholesterol, returning it to the liver to be discarded.
If your body has too much LDL cholesterol, it will build up on the walls of your arteries, raising your risk for heart attack and blood clots, which may lead to a stroke.
Your body can build up high levels of LDL cholesterol in a variety of ways. Diet is a major factor, as are genetics.
Some people’s bodies naturally produce higher levels of LDL cholesterol, or may have a harder time removing LDL cholesterol from their bloodstream.
Diet is the most influential cause of high cholesterol that we can control. Eating foods high in saturated and trans fats will cause elevated levels of LDL cholesterol. In general, the American Heart Association recommends keeping saturated fats as a small percentage of your daily food intake — as little as six percent if you’re trying to lower your cholesterol levels.
Other lifestyle factors, including exercise and smoking, also impact your cholesterol levels. Exercising helps your body produce HDL cholesterol, which can lower your cholesterol levels by taking LDL cholesterol out of the body.
Researchers believe that smoking inhibits our body’s production of HDL (good) cholesterol, but more importantly, it also damages blood vessels and arteries that are already vulnerable to LDL cholesterol buildup.
There are many ways to lower your levels of LDL cholesterol and prevent it from building up in your arteries. Since there are no visible symptoms of high cholesterol, it’s easy to go through life not even knowing that you’re at risk. If you have a family history of heart disease, are overweight, or have other risk factors like diabetes, you should be getting your cholesterol checked at least every five years by your primary care provider.
Once your healthcare provider has a full picture of your cholesterol (also called a lipid panel or lipid profile), they can recommend effective treatments and specific screening intervals. Here are some of the most common treatment options for high cholesterol.
By limiting high-cholesterol foods, you can cut down on the amount of unhealthy LDL cholesterol in your body. You should avoid the saturated fats and high sodium found in commercially packaged food products. If you have high cholesterol, your diet should include lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats like avocado and olive oil. Processed meats, fried foods, and sweets should be avoided, as they tend to have high levels of trans fats, salt, and/or sugar.
Getting plenty of exercise can help lower high levels of cholesterol. Healthcare providers usually recommend getting at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.
Preventive care is key to ensuring that your cholesterol levels remain under control. Your primary care physician will monitor your risk factors and regularly order screenings if you’re at risk. They can also recommend foods to avoid and guide you through lifestyle changes that will improve your heart health.
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Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.