Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamins and substances that help digest foods, but you can certainly have too much of a good thing. Your body naturally makes all the cholesterol it needs to function properly. However, several factors can cause your cholesterol levels to spike beyond healthy levels. This includes a poor diet and eating too many saturated or trans fats. And if those high levels of unhealthy cholesterol go untreated, many other serious health concerns and conditions can be triggered1Diseases Linked to High Cholesterol. WebMD. (2021). Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/guide/diseases-linked-high-cholesterol.. The good news is that this can easily be avoided (and treated) with some simple, healthy lifestyle and diet changes. In this article, we have you covered with everything you need to know to understand cholesterol and to keep your levels within the healthy range.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that can be found in all cells in your body. It’s absolutely necessary for your health, as your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and other substances that help you break down and digest food2Definitions of Health Terms: Nutrition: MedlinePlus. Medlineplus.gov. (2021). Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/definitions/nutritiondefinitions.html.. Fortunately, this all occurs naturally and without effort; your body makes all of the cholesterol it needs.
The two main forms of cholesterol and their functions are:
- Low density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol)
- High density lipoproteins (HDL cholesterol)
What is Bad Cholesterol and Why Does it Matter?
In order to understand how cholesterol affects your health, it’s important to know some key
details about these two forms. HDL cholesterol is commonly referred to as the “good
cholesterol”. It helps absorb LDL cholesterol when it’s too high and brings it back to the liver to
be flushed out from the body. As such, high HDL cholesterol can help decrease your risk for
things such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and blood clots.
As for LDL cholesterol, it is often referred to as “bad cholesterol”, and when its levels become
too high consistently, you may be diagnosed with having high cholesterol. This means you’re
your LDL cholesterol levels are so high that fatty deposits have begun to build up in your blood
vessels. This can cause a cascade of other health concerns and issues, as the increase in plaque
reduces the blood flow going to areas throughout your body, particularly your heart and brain.
This is important because too much of the bad kind of cholesterol, or not enough of the good
kind of cholesterol, increases the risk that cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of
the arteries that feed the heart and brain. Cholesterol can also team up with other substances to
form a thick, hard deposit on the inside of the arteries, further narrowing the arteries and making
them less flexible.
What Are Triglycerides?
Although not a form of cholesterol per say, it’s essential to understand triglycerides’ role in the body. They’re a different type of lipid than cholesterol, and when you consume more food than your body needs, it converts the extra into triglycerides and stores it in your fat cells for later use.
However, if you do not use the triglycerides stored, these levels can become too high and put you at a higher risk for things such as stroke and heart disease3Should you worry about high triglycerides? – Harvard Health. Harvard Health. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/should-you-worry-about-high-triglycerides.. So, while triglycerides are different from cholesterol, they have similar effects when levels are too high.
Warning Signs That Your Cholesterol is Too High
High cholesterol levels typically don’t come with any visible symptoms until it’s too late and a trip to the ER is needed. In other words, the only way to know if your levels of LDL cholesterol, or what is known as bad cholesterol, is to get blood work done.
However, you can look for early warning signs of heart attack and stroke, as these may show up
when your high cholesterol levels are left untreated, causing a buildup of plaque that damages
the heart and put you at risk of heart disease and stroke. So, while there aren’t any visible
warning signs of high cholesterol, there are the following warning signs of heart disease and
stroke to look out for:
- Chest pain
- Coldness or numbness in extremities
- Extreme fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Slurred speech
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
Risk Factors for High Cholesterol
High cholesterol can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, and ethnicity. You are considered to be at a higher risk if you:
- Have an unhealthy diet
- Are overweight or obese
- Have diabetes or kidney disease
- Lack of regular movement or exercise
- Have a family history of high cholesterol
Additionally, these are all factors that can increase your chances of having heart problems or a stroke if you have high cholesterol.
Dangers of High Cholesterol
Having high cholesterol levels comes with many serious risks that are caused by the buildup in the artery walls that restrict the blood flow to your heart, brain and the rest of your body. These risks include:
- Heart attack
- Mini-stroke (formally known as transient ischaemic attack)
- Peripheral arterial disease
- Blood clots
- Chest pain
Treatment of High Cholesterol
When it comes to maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, the ‘check, change and control’ method is highly recommended4Check. Change. Control. Cholesterol Progam. American Heart Association. Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/cholesterol-tools-and-resources/check-change-control-cholesterol-program.:
- Check your cholesterol levels so you can assess your risk
- Change your diet and lifestyle to help improve your levels
- Control your cholesterol with natural remedies or help from your doctor if needed
Natural Ways To Lower Cholesterol
Making a healthy diet and lifestyle changes can drastically reduce your cholesterol levels and, ultimately, your risk of serious complications that come with untreated high cholesterol. While medications can help improve your cholesterol, making these simple healthy changes provides
you with a healthy, natural solution that gets right down to the root cause of the problem:
Step one: Improve your diet
- Eat heart-healthy foods, such as:
- Reduce saturated fats, primarily found in full-fat dairy and red meat
- Avoid trans fats, primarily found in margarines, cookies, crackers and cakes
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: salmon, herring, flaxseeds, walnuts
- Increase soluble fiber found in oatmeal, kidney beans, apples and pears
- Add in whey protein
Step two: Increase your physical activity
- Aim to get 30 minutes of exercise five times a week (or a minimum of 20 minutes three times a week)
- Find exercises you like to do, such as playing a sport or riding your bike
- Take the dog for a walk or enjoy an evening stroll around your block
- Park further away from front doors to get more steps in
- Get an exercise buddy to help keep you motivated and accountable
- Join a gym
Step three: Quit smoking
- Use an app to track your progress (and to celebrate the little wins)
- Slowly reduce your
Step four: Lose weight
- Find creative ways to get more steps in
- Use the steps instead of elevators
- Drink more water
- Take walks during breaks
- Do more standing activities
- Use a standing desk
- Focus on step one and two
Step five: Reduce your alcohol intake
- Moderation is vital if you don’t want to quit entirely
- Choose healthier alcoholic beverages, such as vodka sodas, organic beers, etc.
Focus on taking these five steps and turning it into a new, healthy lifestyle and you can improve
your cholesterol levels and ultimately, your health. If you are still experiencing complications or
your cholesterol levels are not lowering with these healthy lifestyle changes, consult with a
doctor to see if adding medication into your regime is the best option for you.
- 1Diseases Linked to High Cholesterol. WebMD. (2021). Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/guide/diseases-linked-high-cholesterol.
- 2Definitions of Health Terms: Nutrition: MedlinePlus. Medlineplus.gov. (2021). Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/definitions/nutritiondefinitions.html.
- 3Should you worry about high triglycerides? – Harvard Health. Harvard Health. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/should-you-worry-about-high-triglycerides.
- 4Check. Change. Control. Cholesterol Progam. American Heart Association. Retrieved 31 December 2021, from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/cholesterol-tools-and-resources/check-change-control-cholesterol-program.