Cholesterol Guide: Causes, Signs, & Prevention

Cholesterol Guide: Causes, Signs, & Prevention

Cholesterol: What We Need to Know for Long-Term Health

Many of us have heard people talking about how their doctor says they need to lower their cholesterol. But what exactly is cholesterol, and how does it become a problem?

Read on to learn about what cholesterol is, what happens when it gets too high, and how to keep cholesterol at a healthy level.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that can be found in the blood. Cholesterol doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, we need cholesterol to build cells and make hormones and vitamin D.

However, when cholesterol levels get too high, it can cause health problems. Cholesterol circulates through the blood vessels inside of the body. High cholesterol levels can cause fatty deposits to develop inside of the blood vessels. When these deposits become too large, it’s difficult for enough blood to travel through the arteries. And sometimes, the fatty deposits can break off and flow to sensitive areas of the body. When that happens, the fatty masses can form a clot that could lead to a stroke or a heart attack.

This is why we recommend supporting healthy levels of cholesterol in the body.

Two Types of Cholesterol

Cholesterol is able to travel through the blood by attaching itself to proteins. Lipoprotein is the name for the combination of protein and cholesterol.

There are two main types of lipoproteins, depending on the type of cholesterol they carry.

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is also sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol”. LDL carries cholesterol throughout the body and can lead to plaque building up in the walls of the arteries.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL), also sometimes referred to as “good cholesterol”, picks up excess cholesterol from around the body and carries it back to the liver, which produces cholesterol in the first place. The liver then removes the excess cholesterol from the body.

There’s also another, even more dangerous type of cholesterol :Oxidized cholesterol. This form of cholesterol is created when LDL (bad) cholesterol mixes with inflammatory compounds, harmful free radicals, and toxins in the circulation. These oxidative stress compounds actually turn the cholesterol “rancid” leading to increased inflammation, arterial plaque, and atherosclerosis.

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What Causes High Cholesterol?

The liver produces all of the cholesterol the body needs to function correctly. But several lifestyle factors can cause it to overproduce, leading to high cholesterol levels.

The first is eating an unhealthy diet. Foods that come from animals, such as meats and full-fat dairy products, contain dietary cholesterol, which contributes to the overall cholesterol levels in the body. Furthermore, foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, as well as tropical oils like palm kernel oil and coconut oil, cause the liver to produce more cholesterol than it would naturally. This can result in unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Another factor is a lack of exercise. When one sits too much and move too little, the HDL, or “good cholesterol”, lowers. But exercising regularly increases the body’s HDL and makes the LDL, or “bad cholesterol”, less damaging. Additionally, being overweight or obese puts people at risk for high cholesterol.

Smoking is one more lifestyle factor that can lead to high cholesterol. Like a lack of exercise, it lowers the HDL cholesterol. It also damages the walls of the arteries, making them more vulnerable to fatty buildup.

Risk Factors for High Cholesterol

While the above causes of high cholesterol are ones we can influence, some risk factors are hereditary or otherwise out of control. These include:

  • Age - Risk for high cholesterol increases as one gets older. As we age, the liver is less effective at removing LDL cholesterol. However, it is still possible for children and teenagers to have high cholesterol.
  • Diabetes - High blood sugar can hurt the lining of the arteries. It also causes lower HDL cholesterol and higher levels of a harmful type of cholesterol called very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL).
  • Heredity - High cholesterol can be passed down through families. It’s important to know your family history and talk to your doctor about getting your cholesterol levels tested.

Testing for Cholesterol

In general, there aren’t any symptoms of high cholesterol, so to know if someone has it, they can get a blood test from their doctor. There are different recommendations about when to get tested based on family history, risk factors, and age.

Younger adults between the ages of 20 and 40 should get tested every five years.

After the age of 40, doctors will calculate the 10-year risk for heart disease or stroke. This calculation will help them determine how often a person should be tested for high cholesterol. Those with greater risk may need to be checked more frequently.

How Healthy Cholesterol Levels Support Healthy Hearts

Keeping cholesterol at a healthy level is important because it keeps the heart healthy and allows it to do its job well. When arteries are free of fatty deposits caused by high cholesterol, the heart can easily pump blood throughout the body. It also lowers the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or coronary heart disease.

Preventing High Cholesterol

The best way to prevent high cholesterol is to implement heart-healthy lifestyle habits, such as:

  • exercising at least 30 minutes a day
  • maintaining a healthy weight (or losing an appropriate number of pounds to get to a healthy weight)
  • not smoking
  • drinking alcohol in moderation or choosing sobriety
  • eating a diet filled with fresh produce and whole grains
  • limiting the amount of animal fats consumed
  • regulating stress factors

Frequently Asked Questions About Cholesterol

How can cholesterol be reduced?

Cholesterol can be reduced through healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol, and managing stress levels.

What cholesterol level is too high?

For adults, an ideal total cholesterol level is lower than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). A borderline high reading would be between 200 and 239 mg/dL. A reading of 240 mg/dL or higher is considered high cholesterol.

For LDL cholesterol, a desirable level is less than 100 mg/dL. Between 100 and 129 mg/dL is acceptable for healthy individuals, but it’s considered concerning for people with heart disease or risk factors for it. 130 to 159 mg/dL is a borderline high LDL cholesterol reading, while 160 to 189 mg/dL is high. A very high reading is 190 mg/dL or higher.


Sources:

  • Cholesterol. Blood, Heart and Circulation. Published online 1998. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://medlineplus.gov/cholesterol.html
  • Fletcher J. Cholesterol levels by age: Differences and recommendations. Medicalnewstoday.com. Published January 5, 2020. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315900
  • High cholesterol. Mayoclinic.org. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800
  • How to get your cholesterol tested. Heart.org. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/how-to-get-your-cholesterol-tested
  • How to get your cholesterol tested. Heart.org. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/how-to-get-your-cholesterol-tested

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