Cholesterol is a soft, waxy fat particle produced by the liver that circulates in your body through your blood. It is an essential building block for cell membranes and is a common steroid. Cholesterol is needed to form bile that helps to digest fats and assists in the formation of hormones, other steroids and vitamin D. Many popular foods contain cholesterol in amounts that are excessive, increasing levels in the blood and causing the accumulation of plaque deposits in arteries. Plaque buildup in a person’s arteries can lead to atherosclerosis, or coronary heart disease, increasing their risk for stroke, heart attack, circulatory issues, and even death.
CDC states that about 71 million Americans have high cholesterol. Only 1 out of every 3 adults with high cholesterol has the condition under control.
No one seems to have anything nice to say about cholesterol, but the fact is that you literally couldn’t live without it. Cholesterol helps build the walls of every cell in your body. It helps you digest your food, and is even involved in keeping your reproductive system in working order. But it’s possible to get too much of a good thing. Your body naturally produces some cholesterol and absorbs more from the foods you eat. Cholesterol is found only in animal-based products such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese.
In addition, your body converts some plant based foods into cholesterol during digestion. If you end up with more cholesterol than you need, the excess goes into your bloodstream, where it begins to clog your blood vessels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Understanding Your Cholesterol Levels
To measure your cholesterol levels, you’ll need a blood test. When you look at the results, you’ll see that there are actually two different kinds of cholesterol:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein). It’s often called the “bad” cholesterol, because it clogs the blood vessels. An LDL score of 100 or less is great, while a score of 130 or more means you’re at risk of developing heart disease.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Often called the “good” cholesterol, because it actually removes the LDL. A score of 60 or more generally means your risk of heart disease is low, while a score of 40 or less may mean your risk is high. Ideally, you want your total cholesterol—the LDL number plus the HDL number plus other lipid components —to be less than 200. 200 to 239 is considered moderately high; 240 and above is high.
Some things that increase your risk for high cholesterol are things you can change, but some are not:
- Eating foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Regular inactivity
High cholesterol does not cause many symptoms.
Some people with rare lipid disorders may have symptoms such as bumps in the skin, hands, or feet, which are caused by deposits of extra cholesterol and other types of fat.
A heart-healthy lifestyle can help prevent high cholesterol:
- Eating a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol
- Getting plenty of exercise
- Managing your weight
- Not smoking
High cholesterol is usually found during a blood test that measures cholesterol levels.
Questions to Ask Your Health Care Provider
- What may caused my cholesterol to be too high?
- Does high cholesterol run in my family?
- Are there things I can do to reduce my cholesterol?
- Do I need to be on cholesterol lowering medication?
- If I am on medication, how long do I have to take it?
- Are there side effects of treatment?
- What are natural things I can do to lower cholesterol? Diet? Exercise?
- How often do I need to get my cholesterol level checked?
- Am I at risk for other diseases because I have high cholesterol?
If your healthcare provider tells you that your cholesterol is too high, you have several options:
- Make lifestyle changes. This means eating less saturated fat and high cholesterol foods (meat, eggs, and dairy products), and eating more foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (nuts, olive oil, and avocados), which help decrease LDL cholesterol. It also means getting more exercise.
- Take medication. Your healthcare provider can prescribe one of several drugs that have been proven to lower cholesterol.