Cholesterol is a waxy substance that occurs naturally in the body. It is important in the manufacture of hormones and vitamin D. But too much cholesterol, especially when it comes from poor food choices, can clog blood vessels and lead to heart attack or stroke.
There are two types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, are known as “bad” cholesterol. This is the type that builds up in arteries and can cause a heart attack or stroke.
High-density lipoproteins, or HDL, are known as “good” cholesterol. This substance helps return bad cholesterol to the liver for elimination.
Your liver produces cholesterol naturally. But unhealthy foods, such as fried food or foods that contain excessive amounts of animal fat, increase cholesterol levels. Sometimes, excessive carbohydrates become fat (triglycerides) in the blood, partnering with LDL to further clog arteries.
In addition to a poor diet, genetics and obesity also play major roles in a person's inability to eliminate cholesterol from the blood.
Anyone whose diet contains an excessive amount of saturated fat is at risk of high cholesterol. Saturated fat comes from red meat and dairy products. Nuts and some plant-derived oils also are high in saturated fat.
Obese people and people with a genetic susceptibility to high cholesterol are also at risk.
High cholesterol doesn't show any symptoms until a catastrophic event such as a stroke or heart attack occurs. In rare cases, it may show up as yellow deposits in the eyes or in tendons.
High cholesterol can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. When cholesterol levels are taken after a 12-hour fast, total cholesterol should not exceed 200 milligrams per deciliter. A level above 240 is considered high. If a reading falls between normal level and high level, it is considered borderline high.
For most people with high cholesterol, exercise and a healthy diet can decrease levels to normal—discuss all dietary changes and exercise regimens with your doctor or healthcare provider. Sometimes medication is needed, especially with high levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol.
Many different medications can treat high cholesterol. They include:
- Statins are drugs that help your body lower cholesterol levels and even remove cholesterol from clogged arteries.
- Niacin can help lower LDL, or bad cholesterol, and raise HDL, or good cholesterol.
- Resins absorb bile that contains cholesterol and prevent its re-absorption in the large intestine. They also cause the liver to increase bile production, using up more cholesterol.
Other cholesterol-lowering drugs work to lower the intestine's ability to absorb cholesterol.
Lifestyle changes are the first line of defense in treating high cholesterol. Take these steps:
- Eat better. Start preparing meals with your high cholesterol in mind. Try lean meats, such as chicken and fish. Avoid fried or fatty foods. Eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Too many carbohydrates, which can come from alcohol or sugary foods, can raise triglycerides, which also can lead to high cholesterol.
- Exercise. Participate in moderate aerobic activity at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Research shows this regimen can significantly lower cholesterol and triglycerides. Always discuss new exercise regimens with your doctor or healthcare provider.
- Quit smoking. This can lower your levels of HDL, or bad cholesterol.
Nutritional supplements such as fiber, soy, and fish oil may all help lower cholesterol. Herbs including hawthorn, garlic, and olive seed extract may also have benefits. Talk to your doctor before beginning an herbal regimen.
Left untreated, high cholesterol can lead to stroke, heart disease, and even diabetes.
High cholesterol can often be prevented by exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet low in animal fats, and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption.