High blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. This condition, which is known as hypercholesterolemia, affects over 73.5 million Americans. Fewer than one out of every three adults have their cholesterol levels under control. People with high cholesterol are twice more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than healthy individuals. Although cholesterol levels vary by gender, ethnicity, and race, there are certain limits beyond which adverse health effects may occur.
Why Cholesterol Matters
According to health experts, everyone aged 20 and older should regularly check their cholesterol levels. High cholesterol has no symptoms, so it’s important to have blood tests done at least once every five years. The results are referred to as a lipid profile or lipid panel, and show the amount of HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol in your system. These tests also help determine your triglyceride levels.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that ensures the proper functioning of your body. This compound also occurs naturally in certain foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy. However, recent studies indicate the cholesterol in food has a negligible impact on blood cholesterol. Cigarette smoking, obesity, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and other factors increase your cholesterol levels, leading to heart disease and other chronic disorders.
The Dangers of High Cholesterol
Most people consume extra cholesterol through foods, such as fries, hot dogs, ice cream, pizza, and refined oils. Trans fats have the biggest impact on blood cholesterol. These harmful compounds are found in junk food, sweets, and other highly processed products. Over time, cholesterol builds up on the walls of your arteries, choking off blood supply to your brain and heart. If left untreated, it narrows your arteries and affects cardiovascular health.
More than half of adults have high cholesterol in the blood. This means their total cholesterol levels exceed 240 mg/dL. However, children can develop this condition too. Research indicates that hypercholesterolemia begins in childhood and progresses slowly over the years. Some people are more likely to have high blood cholesterol levels than others. The key to optimum cardiovascular health is to maintain normal cholesterol levels throughout your lifetime.
Health risks of high cholesterol include stroke, coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, kidney failure, high blood pressure, chest pain, gallstones, and intestinal ischemic syndrome. Studies have found that about 80 percent of gallstones are cholesterol stones. Reducing your cholesterol levels can lower heart disease risk and add years to your life. This can be done through lifestyle changes, medications, and exercise.
Clean Up Your Diet
The first step to lowering your blood cholesterol levels is to eat healthier. Trans fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol are the three main nutrients that make LDL levels rise. They are found in animal products, crackers, margarine, pastries, fast food, sauces, potato chips, chocolate, palm oil, bacon, butter, and fatty meats. Ditch these foods from your diet and choose whole, natural products. Your daily meals should be rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, raw nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
Certain foods support cardiovascular health and reduce LDL. Some contain soluble fiber, which helps remove cholesterol from your system. Others are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which directly lower cholesterol levels. Ideally, your diet should include oatmeal, walnuts, almonds, pecans, salmon, tuna, mackerel, extra virgin olive oil, eggplant, and citrus fruit.
Eat foods enriched with stanols and sterols. These natural compounds and extracted from plants and inhibit your body’s ability to absorb cholesterol from food. Getting as little as two grams of stanols or sterols a day can reduce bad cholesterol by over 10 percent. Make sure you also consume fatty fish, which increases HDL and lowers LDL. Strawberries, apples, and grapes contain pectin, a type of fiber that decreases bad cholesterol.
If your diet doesn’t provide enough fiber, take supplements. You can also mix a tablespoon of psyllium husk or wheat bran with water, and drink it two or three times a day. There are many spices and herbs that have shown benifits as well. Sage extract is one of them. Soy and whole grains are rich in fiber too, so add them to your menu. Make smart food swaps to fight cholesterol, such as replacing croutons with walnuts, butter with olive oil, and mayonnaise with lemon juice or Greek yogurt. If you can’t give up alcohol, stick to small amounts of red wine.
Make Exercise a Habit
Along with a diet for lowering cholesterol, you should stay active and make exercise a habit. Although physical activity doesn’t directly impact your blood cholesterol, it boosts cardiovascular health and helps you lose weight. At the same time, it increases good cholesterol levels, leading to a better lipid profile.
A custom exercise regimen will keep your heart healthy and burn fat. Obesity is one of the primary risk factors for high cholesterol. If you lose weight and keep it off, your cholesterol levels will decrease. Health experts recommend at least 40 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to four times a week. Your workouts can include jogging, cycling, brisk walking, swimming, dancing, running, or hiking.
Strength training builds muscle and increases metabolism, causing fat loss. In addition to cardio, you can lift weights to shed stubborn fat and prevent heart disease.
Numerous studies suggest that smoking raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol levels. It also puts you at risk for heart attack, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and cancer. Second hand smoke has similar effects. Acrolein, one of the toxic chemicals in cigarettes, goes directly into your bloodstream and affects the way your body metabolizes cholesterol. Quitting smoking can increase good cholesterol by over 30 percent within three weeks.
Before you start taking medications, focus on changing your lifestyle habits. High cholesterol can be successfully managed through good nutrition. Make exercise part of your life, eat mindfully, and think twice before having that extra piece of cake. Take small steps towards a balanced lifestyle; there’s no need to change everything at once. The sooner you start, the better.