Cholesterol Facts & 5 Ways to Help Your High Cholesterol

    
Kiah Connolly, MD

You’ve probably heard quite a bit of fuss about lowering cholesterol, and it really is for good reason. 

One third of the country’s population has elevated cholesterol (1). 

This is such a big deal because it is a major risk factor for heart attacks and stroke, which are leading killers in our society today. What’s more is that high cholesterol is almost always something we can prevent. Those of us already affected with the disease have the power to lower our levels and the associated health risks.  




What is Cholesterol? 

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that exists in every cell in our body. We use cholesterol to help build hormones and other important substances. While we do need some cholesterol for these processes, our body naturally produces all that's required.

In other words, we don't have to eat cholesterol because our bodies already make all we need.

And when we eat too much bad cholesterol it can cause many problems (2). You may hear high cholesterol referred to as hypercholesterolemia. 

HDL and LDL are substances called lipoproteins that basically act as shuttles in charge of carrying cholesterol throughout the body. You may hear these referred to as the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of cholesterol. 

The Good Cholesterol: HDL Cholesterol 

Not all cholesterol is bad. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is often referred to as ‘good cholesterol’ because its job is to carry cholesterol to your liver from the rest of your body. The liver is able to get rid of this cholesterol. 

Bottom Line: HDL is good because it helps remove cholesterol from your body. 

 

The Bad Cholesterol: LDL Cholesterol 

LDL (low-density lipoprotein) has the job of carrying extra cholesterol you eat from your digestive system and dispersing it throughout the rest of your body. It is considered to be ‘bad cholesterol’ because when it gets too high it begins clogging our vessels. 

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Why High Cholesterol is Bad 

Vessels are like pipes that carry blood throughout your body. Blood contains oxygen and important nutrients. Every organ and cell in your body needs a consistent supply of blood to continue working normally. 

When vessels are damaged or clogged with plaques the are said to have atherosclerosis.  High cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking are the main contributors to atherosclerosis. 

This can prevent enough blood from flowing through the vessels. Without enough blood flow, the organs or tissue that the vessel supplies becomes damaged and can die. Atherosclerosis can increase the risk of blood clots and lead to cardiovascular disease and strokes. 

Bottom Line: Too much cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis and prevent tissue from getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive. When this happens in the brain, it is called a stroke. When it happens in the heart, it is referred to as a heart attack.  

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Where Does Cholesterol Come From? 

Your liver is in charge of making all of the cholesterol you need. Sometimes the liver makes too much. Extra cholesterol comes from eating animal products (3). 

How is High Cholesterol Diagnosed? 

An easy blood test can determine if you have high cholesterol. All adults should have their cholesterol tested. 

Normal Cholesterol Levels 

It’s important to know what your cholesterol levels are and what they should be.  

Cholesterol Chart 

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What are Triglycerides? 

Triglycerides are frequently measured with cholesterol, but they are technically a different substance. They are fatty acids. They are primarily carried by VLDL (very low density lipoprotein). Similar to LDL, high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia) can cause problems like clogging arteries. 

When people have high levels of LDL they also often have high triglycerides. When both cholesterol and lipids are elevated, someone is said to have hyperlipidemia. 

Symptoms of High Cholesterol 

A big problem with high cholesterol is you can’t tell if you have it (unless of course you test your blood). 

There are no symptoms of hypercholesterolemia. 

At least there aren’t any until a heart attack or stroke happens. 

What Causes High Cholesterol? 

Risk factors for high cholesterol and high triglycerides include (5): 

  1. Poor Diet Choices 
  2. Being Overweight or Obese 
  3. Smoking
  4. Limited Physical Activity  
  5. Family History 
  6. Age (older) 
  7. Ethnicity 

How to Lower Cholesterol 

The most ideal way to lower your cholesterol is by adopting healthy lifestyle habits. However, medications are sometimes also needed. 

1) Cholesterol Medication 

Your doctor may put you on medication for cholesterol if your levels come back too high. Sometimes doctors also recommend to start medication if your risk of stroke and heart attack are very high. It’s always important to take medication as your doctor prescribes. 

But make sure you don’t use medication as a crutch or an excuse. Lifestyle changes are the foundation of getting you back on track and keeping you there! 

2) Quit Smoking 

Smoking damages vessels and increases the risk of hyperlipidemia, along with causing problems for almost every other part of your health. The health consequences of smoking are overwhelmingly negative. This isn’t something to mess around with.

Just quit smoking. 

3) Exercise 

Consistent exercise is so important for our well-being. It provides a positive impact on both our mental health as well as many aspects of our physical health. Like many other chronic diseases related to obesity, exercise can improve hyperlipidemia independently by helping the health of vessels and also by contributing to weight loss. 

4) Lose Weight 

Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for high cholesterol. Losing weight by calorie control and exercise can powerfully lower your cholesterol - as well as help prevent or improve so many other related diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and more. 


While calorie control and exercise are the most important steps for weight loss, there are additional dietary considerations you should know if you need to lower your cholesterol.   

5) Low Cholesterol Diet 

Among the most important treatments of hyperlipidemia is diet. If you are overweight or obese you need to change your diet to lose weight. Additional diet modifications can help further lower your cholesterol intake. 

Animal Product Considerations 

Cholesterol comes from animal products. While lean animal products in moderation are often included in a very healthy diet, full fat dairy products, meats high in saturated fat or cooked in unhealthy oil or fried contributes significantly to your cholesterol. Red meat can have particularly high levels of cholesterol. 

Limiting your red meat consumption and limiting your overall saturated and trans fat intake can significantly lower your cholesterol. 

Minimize Saturated & Trans Fat

Saturated fats and trans fats (often called ‘unhealthy fats’) can also actually cause your body to make more cholesterol! Some other foods like palm oil and coconut oil (often found in baking goods) can also stimulate your body's cholesterol production (6). 

These foods are usually unhealthy anyway. They are typically high in calories with low nutritional value. Getting these out of your system will help with both weight loss and cholesterol production. 

The American Heart Association recommends only including saturated fat in 5% of everything you eat. 

 

This means making choices like getting rid of fried foods, making low-fat choices when it comes to dairy, and cooking with small amounts of healthier oils (ie: vegetable oils).

Increase Your Fiber 

Our bodies love fiber! Increasing your fiber can lower your cholesterol by 10% (7). This also helps bowel health and to prevent diverticulitis

Bottom Line: The earlier you can integrate healthy lifestyle practices to prevent hyperlipidemia and so many other chronic disease, the better. 


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