Cholesterol. It’s a word you hear tossed around during commercials for pharmaceuticals. It’s something your doctor tells you to watch out for. You may know that it’s good and bad. What is cholesterol and why is understanding cholesterol so important to your health?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that, in itself, isn’t inherently bad. It travels through your blood and is used to build cell membranes. It also helps make hormones and vitamin D.
There are two types of cholesterol:
- HDL, or high density lipoprotein, which helps protect against heart attacks and strokes.
- LDL, or low density lipoprotein, which contributes to fatty build up in the arteries.
Lipoproteins in general are sphere shaped proteins that carry cholesterol through the bloodstream. HDL cleans the arteries by carrying the LDL to the liver where the LDL is broken down and eliminated. But when there is too much LDL, the helper HDL can’t get rid of it all.
So you can pretty quickly see how HDL is referred to as “good” cholesterol and LDL is labeled as “bad.” While you need some LDL to help move cholesterol through the blood, too much causes build up on the artery walls. The higher your LDL, the more likely you are to suffer from heart disease.
There is research to suggest that your genes are the main reason for the amount and type of cholesterol in your blood system. This genetic factor means that anyone can have high cholesterol, even children. In fact, cholesterol problems can start in childhood with the buildup of plaque in the arteries. That’s one of the reasons that establishing healthy eating habits is so important for children. That’s also why cholesterol checks are recommended for children between the ages of 9 and 11 years and again at 17 years.
We get cholesterol from two sources: the liver, which produces as much cholesterol as we’ll ever need; and the food we eat like meat, poultry and dairy.
The foods we eat that contain cholesterol can also have high concentrations of saturated and trans fats. When liquid oils are transformed into solid fats like shortening and margarine during the production process, the result is a “trans fat.” Trans fatty acids raise LDL and lower HDL. Consuming these foods makes the liver produce even more cholesterol. For some people, this results in unhealthy cholesterol levels and health problems are compounded. This is why your healthcare provider may advise you to look at food labels for trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils, another type of oil that is converted to a solid during food processing.
In addition to checking food labels, adopting a heart healthy diet will help you lower your LDL. Heart healthy diets include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fat free, low fat and 1% fat milk products
- Poultry without the skin and lean meats
- Fatty fish like trout, albacore tuna and salmon
There is also some evidence to suggest that stress contributes to cholesterol levels. A 2013 study of more than 90,000 people found a correlation between job stress and unhealthy or high cholesterol levels. A 2017 study found that psychological stress led to higher levels of LDL while decreasing HDL, the good cholesterol.
So managing stress, it turns out, is an important part of reducing bad cholesterol. Some suggestions for stress management include daily meditation, exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep.
If diet and lifestyle changes aren’t effective in lowering your LDL levels, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to assist in bringing bad cholesterol levels under control. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop making changes to your diet and lifestyle, but the medications are a supplement to your treatment plan.
By addressing any issues with your diet, lifestyle, exercise regimen, and possibly medications, you can make great strides in managing your cholesterol levels and promoting your overall health. Remember, your heart is counting on you!