What is High Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in the fats (lipids) in the blood that is needed by the body to function normally. It works as a building block for various structures, as well as other hormones and chemicals that are vital for the body’s functions. The body utilizes cholesterol to produce vitamin D, hormones, and the bile acids needed to digest food. However, only a moderate amount of cholesterol is needed in the blood for such requirements. If there is too much cholesterol in the bloodstream, the excess is usually deposited on the walls of the arteries. Locations for this buildup include the carotid arteries to the brain, the coronary arteries of the heart, and that the arteries responsible for supplying blood to the intestines and the legs.
High cholesterol increases the danger of atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack, stroke, TIA, and peripheral artery disease.
Having your doctor tell you that you have high cholesterol means you have fatty deposits in your blood cells that are hindering the flow of blood through the arteries. These deposits deprive your heart of oxygen-enriched blood, thus increasing the risk of heart attack while decreased blood flow to the brain raises your risk of a stroke.
What causes High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol levels can be caused by any combination of diet, lifestyle, and heredity. However, underlying illnesses that affect the thyroid, kidney, or liver may also cause high blood cholesterol levels.
- Heredity: Genes can play an important role in how the body metabolizes LDL cholesterol. Familial hypercholesterolemia is an inherited type of high cholesterol that can cause heart disease.
- Physical exercise: Regular exercise can help increase HDL cholesterol levels and lower triglycerides
- Age and sex: Usually women have lower total cholesterol levels than men belonging to the same age group before menopause, but once they are over 50 years of age their cholesterol levels are higher than men belonging to the same age group. As we age our cholesterol levels rise until about 65 years of age.
- Weight: Excess weight can increase LDL cholesterol levels. Losing weight can result in lower LDL cholesterol levels.
- Alcohol use: Moderate alcohol intake raises HDL cholesterol. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the heart muscle and the liver and lead to high blood pressure and increased triglyceride levels.
- Mental stress: Research shows that stress can raise blood cholesterol by affecting your habits. For instance, people console themselves with fatty foods when they are stressed. The cholesterol and saturated fats in such foods contribute to higher blood cholesterol levels.
Symptoms of High Cholesterol
There are no specific cholesterol symptoms, but it is a high-risk factor for several diseases. Diagnosing high blood pressure is possible with the help of a routine blood screening test which can reliably measure elevated blood cholesterol levels.
Every person who is above the age of 20 years should get their blood cholesterol levels checked once every five years. The lipoprotein profile, a simple blood test, can help provide your cholesterol numbers. This blood test commonly measures:
- Total cholesterol
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
Diet guidelines for High Cholesterol
The following dietary guidelines should be followed by people who have high blood cholesterol.
- Total fat should be less than 30% of daily caloric intake
- Monounsaturated fats should consist of 10% to 15% of daily caloric intake
- Saturated fats should be less than 7% of daily caloric intake
- Cholesterol intake should be below 200 mg per day
- Polyunsaturated fat present in nuts, fish, vegetables should be at least 10% of daily caloric intake
- Carbohydrates should be 50% to 60% of daily caloric intake
Lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet and regular exercise paired with proper medication can provide an effective defense against high cholesterol.
Foods that help lower Cholesterol Levels
Certain foods help lower cholesterol levels in the blood by utilizing different mechanisms. For example, high fiber foods bind to cholesterol and make it harder to absorb. Cholesterol-lowering foods include:
- Citrus fruits
- Barley, oats, and other whole grains
- Apples, grapes, strawberries
- Fatty fish
Foods that raise Cholesterol Levels
Certain foods increase cholesterol levels and should be avoided or eaten in moderation. These include:
- Processed meats like bacon and sausage
- Egg yolks
- Dairy products including cream cheese and butter
- Red meats
- Fast foods like fried chicken, hamburgers, French fries
- Baked goods made with animal fats
- Snacks that are high in butter and salt content such as microwave popcorn
Lifestyle changes that help Lower Cholesterol
Lifestyle changes work well when incorporated with a cholesterol-lowering and heart-healthy diet. These choices can help lower cholesterol and work to reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack, and peripheral artery disease.
- Maintain a healthy weight: By losing the excess weight, you can manage cholesterol levels.
- Exercise: Exercising daily for 30 minutes can help raise HDL levels.
- Stop smoking: Quitting smoking can help increase HDL levels and decrease the risk of heart attack.
Consult with your doctor if your cholesterol levels do not change after making suggested lifestyle changes so that he or she may recommend proper medication. The specific combination of medications or choice of medications will depend on different factors like your current health, age, risk factors, and possible side effects. Some of these medications are:
Statins block a substance that is needed by the liver to make cholesterol. This helps the liver to remove cholesterol from your blood. Statins help the body reabsorb cholesterol from the deposits that are found along the artery walls and this goes a long way to avoiding coronary artery disease.
Cholesterol Absorption Inhibitors
The small intestines absorb cholesterol from your food and release it into your bloodstream. Cholesterol absorption inhibitors are drugs that reduce blood cholesterol by stopping the absorption of dietary cholesterol.
Cholesterol is also utilized by the liver to make bile acids that help in digestion. These drugs help lower cholesterol levels by binding to bile acids. In turn, the liver uses the excess cholesterol to make more bile acids.
These new drugs help the liver to absorb LDL cholesterol and decrease the amount of cholesterol in the blood.
- Drinkaware – Health Effects of Alcohol
- Sigma-Aldrich – Bile Acids