I recently asked medical and nonmedical individuals the question “What does cholesterol mean to you?” In response, I received a wide array of answers from “bad for your health” to “good and bad but too much block your arteries.” Although we have our own definitions, do we really know what it means?
The American Heart Association defines cholesterol as a waxy substance that the body needs to build cells, but too much can be a problem. cholesterol comes from two sources. Your body (specifically your liver) makes all the cholesterol you need and the rest comes from animal foods. For example, meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products contain cholesterol (called dietary cholesterol). More importantly, these foods are high in saturated and trans fat. That’s a problem because these fats cause your liver to make more cholesterol than it otherwise would. For some people, this added production means they go from a normal cholesterol level to one that’s unhealthy.
There are actually two types of cholesterol: “bad” (LDL) and “good” (HDL). Too much of the bad or not enough of the good kind increases the chances that cholesterol will start to slowly build up in the inner walls of arteries that feed the heart and brain. Together with other substances, cholesterol can form a thick, hard deposit that can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, a heart attack or stroke can result. Smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes increases risks even more.
When it comes to HDL cholesterol, a higher number means lower risk. This is because HDL cholesterol protects against heart disease by taking the “bad” cholesterol out of your blood and keeping it from building up in your arteries. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body; they store excess energy from your diet. A high triglyceride level combined with low HDL cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol is linked with fatty buildups in artery walls. This increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Your body naturally produces all the bad cholesterol it needs. An unhealthy lifestyle, such as eating unhealthy foods, smoking, excess weight and being physically inactive, causes your body to have more bad cholesterol in your blood than it needs. This is the cause of high cholesterol for most people. Also, it can be inherited from a parent that has high levels of LDL in the blood, increasing your risk of narrowing of the arteries.
If you have high blood cholesterol, making lifestyle modifications is important to help lower your risk of heart disease. It’s a lot better to change your lifestyle now, to prevent a heart attack or stroke, than to wait until a devastating event changes your life for you. Making minor changes now can help prevent major changes later. Here are a few suggestions:
Become more physically active
Having a sedentary lifestyle lowers HDL cholesterol. Less HDL cholesterol means there’s less good cholesterol to remove LDL (bad) cholesterol from arteries. Physical activity is important. Just 40 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week is enough to lower both cholesterol and high blood pressure. Brisk walking, swimming, bicycling or dance classes are just a few examples of good physical activities.
Quit smoking
Smokers can lower their cholesterol levels and help protect their arteries by quitting. Nonsmokers should avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. Smoking lowers HDL cholesterol. When a person with high cholesterol also smokes, their risk of coronary heart disease increases more than it otherwise would.
Lose weight
Being overweight or obese tends to raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. Losing excess weight can improve cholesterol levels. A weight loss of 10 percent can go a long way toward lowering your risk of high cholesterol or reversing it.
Before starting any lifestyle changes consult with your doctor, especially if you have other risk factors. If these changes don’t lower your risk enough, you may need prescribed medications.
The American Heart Association asks that you remember three things: 1. Make an appointment to get your total cholesterol; LDL, HDL and triglycerides levels checked. 2. Change your lifestyle. 3. Control your risk.