Understanding Cholesterol

When we think of cardiovascular health, cholesterol is one of the first things that comes to mind. Some cholesterol is actually necessary for production of digestive enzymes, vitamin D and hormones, while too much can put us at risk for heart attacks. Understanding the different types and functions of cholesterol can help us make lifestyle changes to keep our hearts in good shape.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance naturally produced by our bodies and also ingested through animal proteins and full-fat dairy products. There are two basic types: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). “Bad” cholesterol (LDL) is what builds up in our arteries causing heart attacks while “good” cholesterol (HDL), carries other cholesterols from around our bodies back to the liver where it is filtered.

By itself having high LDL cholesterol levels has no symptoms, so diagnosis can only be done through a lipid profile blood test. Excess cholesterol becomes a problem because it produces plaque which collects and hardens between artery walls, thereby restricting oxygen-rich blood flow around the heart (atherosclerosis). Sections of the plaque can also rupture causing blood clots to form. If these dislodge they can completely cut off oxygenated blood to the heart triggering chest pains (angina) or a heart attack. This same plaque also builds up in other arteries around the body including those to the brain which can result in a stroke.

Did you know:

  • People with high cholesterol have about twice the risk of heart disease as those with lower levels
  • 71 Million American adults (33.5%) have high LDL cholesterol, only half are getting treatment
  • High cholesterol can be genetic and even affects children
  • Women tend to have lower cholesterol than men, but this increases significantly during pregnancy and post-menopause

Our first line of defense against bad cholesterol is a good diet. Eliminating processed food, deli meats, and saturated fats is a great start. We can replace them with spinach, nuts, beans, and omega-3 rich fish like salmon. Regular exercise, avoiding excess sugar and alcohol, and smoking cessation also help maintain a healthy weight thereby lowering cholesterol levels. Certain foods might have an impact on current medications or other health concerns, so before making any big lifestyle change it is best to talk with your physician.