Americans are inundated almost on a daily basis by information about the dangers of cholesterol. Still, an estimated 102 million adults in the U.S. have a cholesterol level putting them at risk for heart disease. Even though we know we should watch our cholesterol levels, many of us don’t know how. To raise your cholesterol IQ, we’re going to take a closer look at cholesterol and find out how we can maintain healthy levels.
The liver combines substances from natural compounds found in your body to produce cholesterol. That’s the main source of cholesterol. But you also ingest cholesterol when you eat foods containing animal fat. These include full-fat dairy products (butter, cream, cheese, whole milk); lard; fatty meats (with visible white fat), bacon, and foods made with trans-fat (processed baked goods, fries, onion rings, etc.) In contrast, foods made plants are cholesterol free.
Our bodies need a small amount of cholesterol to maintain normal body functions, including producing hormone, processing of fat-soluble vitamins, and maintaining cell structure. While cholesterol is a specific compound, it is transported throughout the body by carriers called lipoproteins.
Depending on the carrier, cholesterol is either “good” or “bad.” High-density lipoproteins, or HDLs, carry cholesterol out of the blood to the liver, so it doesn’t stick to blood vessel walls and clog them. HDL is referred to as “good cholesterol” (think H for healthy). Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL (think lousy), on the other hand, is the “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol can build up in blood vessel walls, contributing to heart disease. A few other carriers make up the total cholesterol number, but HDL and LDL two are the main components.
The only way to know your cholesterol levels is through a blood test. You need to know your total cholesterol (including the biggest contributors, LDL and HDL), as well as HDL and LDL. Triglycerides are another type of fat, related to, but different from cholesterol. High levels of triglycerides are also linked to heart disease. Here are what the numbers mean:
LDL (bad cholesterol):
HDL (good cholesterol):
There are a number of side effects of high cholesterol. If arteries get clogged, oxygen-rich blood has trouble getting to the heart, damaging the heart muscle. Clogged arteries can also contribute to strokes, peripheral vascular disease, and peripheral artery disease (clogging in the legs and feet.) High cholesterol can contribute to high blood pressure. Accumulation of cholesterol in blood vessel walls decreases their diameter vessels, so blood is pumped through them at a higher pressure.
Biology: We can’t control
How to lower high cholesterol:
Medication does not replace the lifestyle change. You can’t eat bacon and eggs for breakfast just because you take a statin. Both are both important.
NOTE: If you take cholesterol-lowering meds, like the statins, you need to avoid certain foods which can interfere with their effectiveness. For instance, don’t take them with grapefruit juice.
The bottom line: Find out your cholesterol numbers. See your doctor for a blood test. If they’re out of balance, evaluate your options. Start with lifestyle changes: diet and exercise. If that doesn’t work, then see your doctor about medications that would be safe and effective for you.