Healthful Hints - Cholesterol

Cholesterol is one of those health concerns that we should all be aware of and make efforts to keep under control for quality health. It is talked about all the time in society, but do you really understand it and why it is so important in maintaining good health? Let’s break it down.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all the cells in your body. Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. It makes all the cholesterol it needs. Cholesterol is also found in foods from animal sources, such as egg yolks, meat, and cheese. If you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can combine with other substances in the blood to form plaque. Plaque sticks to the walls of your arteries. This buildup of plaque is known as atherosclerosis. It can lead to coronary artery disease, which can cause your coronary arteries to become narrow or even blocked.

Tell me about LDL, HDL, and VLDL

There are different types of cholesterol, and it’s necessary to understand each of them.

  • HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. It is called the "good" cholesterol because it carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Your liver then removes the cholesterol from your body.
  • LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. It is called the "bad" cholesterol because a high LDL level leads to the buildup of plaque in your arteries.
  • VLDL stands for very low-density lipoprotein. It is also "bad" cholesterol because it too contributes to the buildup of plaque in your arteries. But VLDL and LDL are different; VLDL carries triglycerides and LDL carries cholesterol.

What causes high LDL/VLDL (bad) cholesterol?

The most common cause of high cholesterol is an unhealthy lifestyle. Just in case you don’t know what that means, here are some good examples:

  • Unhealthy eating habits - Eating a lot of saturated and trans fats.
    • Saturated fat is found in some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, deep-fried foods and processed foods.
    • Trans fat is in some fried and processed foods. Eating these fats can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
  • Lack of physical activity – Lots of sitting and little exercise lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol.
  • Stress – Chronic stress can sometimes raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.
  • Smoking – Over and above the effects it has on your lungs, it also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol, especially in women and also raises your LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Genetics may also be a factor in having high cholesterol. For example, familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is an inherited form of high cholesterol. Other medical conditions and certain medicines may also cause high cholesterol.

Are you at risk?

A variety of things can raise your risk for high cholesterol:

  • Age – Your cholesterol levels tend to rise as you get older. Even though it is less common, younger people, including children and teens, can also have high cholesterol.
  • Heredity – High blood cholesterol can run in families.
  • Weight – Being overweight or obese raises your cholesterol level.
  • Race – Certain races may have an increased risk of high cholesterol.

What health problems can high cholesterol cause?

If you have large deposits of plaque in your arteries, an area of plaque can rupture (break open). This can 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.

If the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle is reduced or blocked, it can cause angina (chest pain) or a heart attack.

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

How to know if you have high cholesterol?

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

For people who are age 19 or younger:

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

For people who are age 20 or older:

  • Younger adults should have a test every 5 years.
  • Men ages 45 to 65 and women ages 55 to 65 should have it every 1 to 2 years.

Can you improve your levels?

Good news! You can do something about your cholesterol levels through heart-healthy lifestyle changes. These changes include a heart-healthy eating plan, weight loss and management, and regular physical activity.

If the lifestyle changes alone do not lower your cholesterol enough, you may also need to take medicine to help. There are several types of cholesterol-lowering drugs available, including statins. If you take medicines to lower your cholesterol, you still should continue with healthy lifestyle changes. Check with your physician to see what’s best for you.