High Cholesterol Facts and Tips to Help Lower Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty chemical, an important part of the outer lining (membrane) of cells in the body.
Cholesterol found mainly in foods that come from animals. LDL lipoprotein is the major carrier of cholesterol in the blood. LDL cholesterol is also called “bad” cholesterol, because heighten LDL cholesterol is associated with an higher risk of coronary heart disease.
LDL lipoprotein deposits cholesterol on the artery walls, causing the formation of a hard, thick substance called cholesterol plaque. Over time, cholesterol plaque causes thickening of the artery walls and narrowing of the arteries, a process called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerotic disease of coronary arteries is called coronary heart disease. Coronary heart disease is the most common cause of death in the United States, accounting 600,000 deaths annually.
Atherosclerosis can also lead to brain damage from stroke. In addition to smoking and blood pressure, blood cholesterol is a major controllable risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Your blood cholesterol level is affected not only by what you eat but also by how quickly your body makes LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and disposes of it. In fact, your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, and it is not necessary to take in any additional cholesterol from the foods you eat.
Many factors help determine whether your LDL-cholesterol level is high or low. The following factors are the most important:
Your genes influence how high your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol is by affecting how fast LDL is made and removed from the blood. One specific form of inherited high cholesterol that affects 1 in 500 people is familial hypercholesterolemia, which often leads to early heart disease. But even if you do not have a specific genetic form of high cholesterol, genes play a role in influencing your LDL-cholesterol level.
- What you eat
Two main nutrients in the foods you eat make your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol level go up: saturated fat, a type of fat found mostly in foods that come from animals; and cholesterol, which comes only from animal products. Saturated fat raises your LDL-cholesterol level more than anything else in the diet. Eating too much saturated fat and cholesterol is the main reason for high levels of cholesterol and a high rate of heart attacks in the United States. Reducing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat is a very important step in reducing your blood cholesterol levels.
Weight. Excess weight tends to increase your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol level. If you are overweight and have a high LDL-cholesterol level, losing weight may help you lower it. Weight loss also helps to lower triglycerides and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
- Physical activity/Exercise
Regular physical activity may lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
- Age and sex
Before the age of menopause, women usually have total cholesterol levels that are lower than those of men the same age. As women and men get older, their blood cholesterol levels rise until about 60 to 65 years of age. After the age of about 50, women often have higher total cholesterol levels than men of the same age.
Alcohol intake increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol but does not lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Doctors don’t know for certain whether alcohol also reduces the risk of heart disease. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver and heart muscle, lead to high blood pressure, and raise triglycerides. Because of the risks, alcoholic beverages should not be used as a way to prevent heart disease.
Stress over the long term has been shown in several studies to raise blood cholesterol levels. One way that stress may do this is by affecting your habits. For example, when some people are under stress, they console themselves by eating fatty foods. The saturated fat and cholesterol in these foods contribute to higher levels of blood cholesterol.
Why is high cholesterol dangerous?
Elevated cholesterol levels are one of the risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. The mechanism involving cholesterol in all three diseases is the same; plaque buildup within arteries decreases blood flow affecting the function of the cells and organs that these blood vessels supply.
- Atherosclerotic heart disease or narrowed coronary arteries in the heart can cause the symptoms of angina, when the heart muscle is not provided with enough oxygen to function.
- Decreased blood supply to the brain may be due to narrowed small arteries in the brain or because the larger carotid arteries in the neck may become blocked. This can result in a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
- Peripheral artery disease describes gradual narrowing of the arteries that supply the legs. During exercise, if the legs do not get enough blood supply, they can develop pain, called claudication.
- Other arteries in the body may also be affected by plaque buildup causing them to narrow, including the mesenteric arteries to the intestine and the renal arteries to the kidney.
What are normal cholesterol levels?
Cholesterol Risk Guidelines
|Total Cholesterol (mg/dL)|
|200 to 239||Borderline high|
|100 to 129||Near Optimal|
|130 to 159||Borderline high|
|160 to 189||Near high|
The goal is to have patients modify lifestyle and diet to maintain cholesterol levels within the normal range. It is important to remember that HDL may protect a patient from heart disease and it may be a treatment goal to raise a too low level of HDL.
Here are some foods to improve your cholesterol and protect your heart:
Oatmeal, oat bran and high-fiber foods
Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol. Soluble fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples and pears.
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids
Fatty fish has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your triglycerides — a type of fat found in blood — as well as reduce your blood pressure and risk of developing blood clots. In people who have already had heart attacks, omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of sudden death.
The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in:
Omega-3 and fish oil supplements are available. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.
Almonds and other nuts
Almonds and other tree nuts can improve blood cholesterol. A recent study concluded that a diet supplemented with walnuts can lower the risk of heart complications in people with history of a heart attack.
Avocados are a potent source of nutrients as well as monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). Research suggests that adding an avocado a day to a heart-healthy diet can help improve LDL cholesterol levels in people who are overweight or obese.
Try using olive oil in place of other fats in your diet. You can saute vegetables in olive oil, add it to a marinade or mix it with vinegar as a salad dressing. You can also use olive oil as a substitute for butter when basting meat or as a dip for bread.
Foods with added plant sterols or stanols
Sterols and stanols are substances found in plants that help block the absorption of cholesterol. Foods that have been fortified with sterols or stanols are available.
Margarines and orange juice with added plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol. Adding 2 grams of sterol to your diet every day can lower your LDL cholesterol by 5 to 15 percent.
Other changes to your diet
Getting the full benefit of these foods requires other changes to your diet and lifestyle. One of the most beneficial changes is limiting the saturated and trans fats you eat.
Saturated fats — such as those in meat, butter, cheese and other full-fat dairy products — raise your total cholesterol. Decreasing your consumption of saturated fats to less than 7 percent of your total daily calorie intake can reduce your LDL cholesterol by 8 to 10 percent.
It’s easy to eat your way to an alarmingly high cholesterol level. The reverse is true, too — changing what foods you eat can lower your cholesterol and improve the armada of fats floating through your bloodstream.