Cholesterol

Nearly 1 in 3 American adults have high cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all the cells in your body. Your body uses cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest food. Your body is able to make naturally all the cholesterol it needs to function properly. Cholesterol is also found in foods from animals, such as egg yolks, meat, and cheese.

If you have too much cholesterol, it can combine with other substances to form plaque in your blood. This plaque builds up on the walls of your arteries, which is call atherosclerosis, and leads to coronary artery disease. 

Talk to a health care professional about how you can manage your cholesterol levels and lower your risk. 

Not all cholesterol is created equal

There are different types:

  • High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) – It is considered the “good” cholesterol. It carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Your liver is able to remove the cholesterol from your body.
  • Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) – This is the “bad” cholesterol. High levels of LDL lead to the build up of plaque in your arteries.
  • Very-Low-Density Lipoprotein (VLDL) – This is also a “bad” cholesterol. It also contributes to the build up of plaque in your arteries. VLDL carries triglycerides, whereas, LDL carries cholesterol. 
  • Sign & Symptoms
  • Cholesterol Test Recommendations
  • Causes
  • Medical Conditions Caused By High Cholesterol

There are usually no noticeable signs or symptoms that you have high cholesterol. There is a blood test to measure your cholesterol levels. When and how often you get this test depends on your age, risk factors, and family history. 

General  recommendations are:

For people who are 19 years old and younger:

  • The first test should be between 9-11
  • Children should have the test again every 5 years
  • Some children may have this test starting at age 2, if there is a family history of high blood cholesterol, heart attack, or stroke

For people age 20 or older:

  • Younger adults should have the test every 5 years
  • Men ages 45-65 and women ages 55-65 should have it every 1-2 years
The number one cause of high cholesterol is an unhealthy lifestyle.  This includes:
  • Unhealthy eating habits – eating lots of bad fat (saturated fats and trans fats) found in meat, dairy, chocolate, baked goods, and deep-fried and processed foods. 
  • Lack of physical activity – a sedentary lifestyle with lots of sitting and very little exercise. This can lower your HDL (good cholesterol).
  • Smoking – lowers HDL, especially in women. Smoking can also raise your LDL.
  • Genetics – may contribute to a person’s likelihood of to have high cholesterol. VLDL levels are found in a hereditary health condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. 
Being overweight or obese can also lead to higher blood LDL levels. Abnormal cholesterol levels can arise in health conditions, including:
  • Diabetes
  • Liver or Kidney Disease
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
  • Pregnancy and other conditions that increase levels of female hormones
  • Underactive Thyroid gland
  • Drugs that increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol (progestins, anabolic steroids, and corticosteroids

If you have large deposits of plaque in your arteries, an area of plaque could rapture and cause a blood clot to form on the surface of the plaque. If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block blood flow in a coronary artery. This can cause chest pains and a heart attack.

Plaque can also build up in the other arteries in your body, including those that bring oxygen-rich blood to the brain. This can lead to health problems such as carotid artery disease, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease. 

How Can I Lower My Cholesterol?

You can lower your cholesterol through a heart-healthy lifestyle. This includes a heart-healthy eating plan, weight management, and regular exercise. 

If your changes do not lower your cholesterol, you may need to speak to your doctor about medication. There are several types of cholesterol-lowing drugs available. If you take medicines to lower your cholesterol, you still should continue with the lifestyle changes. 

A report from Harvard Health identified 11 foods that lower cholesterol. These include:

  1. Oats
  2. Barley and other whole grains
  3. Beans
  4. Eggplant and okra
  5. Nuts
  6. Vegetable oils
  7. Apples, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruit
  8. Foods fortified with sterols and stanols (types of plant gum that absorb cholesterol)
  9. Soy
  10. Fatty fish (mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, trout)
  11. Fiber supplements
Reduce cholesterol levels by avoiding these foods.
  • Saturated fats (red meat, whole-fat dairy, eggs)
  • Trans fats (Banned in the US)
  • Refined sugars

Sources: MedlinePlus.gov and Harvard Medical School 

Resources

Links to various resources on the topics discuss on this page. 

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