When the first diagonosis of “high cholesterol” is pronounced, many people are unsure of what this means and what exactly cholsterol is. They hear the word bandied about and assume it is “bad”. Actually, cholesterol is an essential compound that is manufactured in our bodies (it is in every cell of your body, especially your brain) and is necessary for survival. It is a waxy looking substance that is found in certain foods of animal origin. But how does cholesterol get too high and what are the risks of high cholesterol?
Cholesterol is crucial for the body to be able to produce hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help to digest fat. But, the body only needs a certain amount of cholesterol to function properly. When too much cholesterol is present within the body, problems like heart disease can develop. Certain conditions in the body can cause cholesterol to deposit in our blood vessels, hardening the arteries and narrowing the flow of blood. Some arteries may be completely blocked. This condition is called atherosclerosis. If blockage occurs in the heart, it causes a heart attack.
There are essentially two important forms of cholesterol circulating in our blood, 1) the low density or LDL, known as the “bad” cholesterol and 2) the high density or HDL, known as the “good” cholesterol. Heart disease is strongly correlated with an excessive LDL relative to HDL. The goal is to lower your LDL and raise your HDL, your “good” cholesterol. HDL helps the body to get rid of bad cholesterol in the blood. If your HDL levels are too low, your risk of heart disease increases as well.
There are two main ways to lower your cholesterol.
- One way is to make changes within in your diet and lifestyle, i.e., naturally. For instance, limit dietary fat to no more than 35% of total calories. Reduce intake of cholesterol to 300 mg or less per day. (Too little cholesterol in the diet and the liver will produce more to make up for the lack.) Other efforts include getting more exercise, quitting smoking, and reducing body fat to a healthier level.
- The other method to lower your cholesterol is to take cholesterol-lowering drugs prescribed by a doctor. Before going that route, it is best to try the non-medication approach first as it can save you the harmful side effect 12% of the people experience.
Even while taking the prescribed medications, your doctor will also prescribe dietary and lifestly changes such as quitting smoking, exercising, and dietary adjustments. Smoking lowers your HDL and raises your LDL, so reducing to eliminating smoking is a priority. Exercise increases the good cholesterol in some people. Even moderate-intensity activities such as a 20 minute walk that are done daily can help you to control your weight, diabetes, and high blood pressure which are all risk factors for heart disease.
High cholesterol and heart disease are common in families so if you are concerned about your cholesterol level, you should see your doctor. A simple blood test will be able to tell you the level of bad and good cholesterol that you have. You can even find them at your local drugstore. You doctor can also assess your lifestyle and give you advice on how you can stay within health cholesterol ranges.