Have you been diagnosed with high cholesterol? Worried about your risk? Either way, you’re certainly not alone, as close to 40% of adults worldwide have been diagnosed with this chronic health condition. Though heredity and other uncontrollable factors like age and gender can often influence the development of high cholesterol, evidence has long suggested that modifiable lifestyle behaviors can also have a significant impact.
What Exactly is High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol (also known as hypercholesterolemia) is a condition in which there’s too much of a certain type of cholesterol (or lipid) and/or an abundance of triglycerides (fats from foods) floating around in the bloodstream. Let me emphasize again the phrase “a certain type of cholesterol” as not all cholesterol is “bad”.
In fact, cholesterol actually has numerous important functions in the body including the maintenance of cell integrity and the production of steroid sex hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids, which are needed for healthy digestion.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the type that’s generally labeled as “bad”. Along with triglycerides, excess LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream tends to settle as fatty deposits within the walls of the arteries. Over time, these deposits can build up and form what are called plaques.
The plaques can then build up and cause narrowing or blockage of the arteries. This condition (also known as atherosclerosis) limits the healthy flow of blood (and consequently oxygen) and increases the risk of heart disease and potentially life-threatening complications like heart attack and stroke due to reduced oxygen supply to the heart and brain, respectively.
Plaques can also rupture and cause blood clots, which further increases the risk of complications.
The liver plays a critical role in the regulation of cholesterol levels in the body. Its inherent role is to clear excess LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream and remove it from the body, but the liver also actively breaks down triglycerides to meet the body’s constant demand for energy. Genetics can influence the ability (or inability) of the liver to function at optimal levels. Hence, the role of heredity in the development of hypercholesterolemia.
Now, the other type of cholesterol that’s considered to be the “good” one is known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This type of cholesterol essentially serves as a vehicle for transporting LDL cholesterol from the arterial walls to the liver where it’s removed from the body altogether. Needless to say, it’s desirable for HDL cholesterol levels to be high, as this’ll lesson the likelihood of LDL cholesterol build up in the arteries.
A diagnosis of hypercholesterolemia is typically determined through a simple blood test called a lipid profile, which is generally performed after a 8-12-hour fast. The lipid profile is designed to measure total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in the blood. Ideal levels for each component of the lipid profile are as follows:
- Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL (200-239 mg/dL is borderline high)
- LDL cholesterol: Less than 130 mg/dL (130-159 mg/dL is borderline high)
- HDL cholesterol: More than 40-50 mg/dL for men and 50-60 mg/dL for women
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL (150-199 mg/dL is borderline high)
Since HDL cholesterol can actually reduce the presence of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream, the higher this number, the lower your risk for hypercholesterolemia and related complications. In fact, if your total cholesterol reading is slightly over 200 mg/dL but your HDL cholesterol levels are extremely high (60 mg/dL or more), this isn’t necessarily dangerous to your health.
Nevertheless, it’s always important to discuss your lipid profile with your physician or health care provider and ask questions to make sure you understand the results.
How Can You Reduce High Cholesterol?
If you’ve been diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia or have an increased risk due to family history, in many cases, high cholesterol can be controlled, and even reversed, without the use of medications. So, be sure to discuss both medical and alternative treatment options with your physician or health care provider.
An abundance of evidence shows that abstaining from smoking, exercising regularly, eating the right foods, and maintaining a healthy body weight can all reduce the risk of high cholesterol. Check out the following links and learn more.