High cholesterol can lead to serious health conditions including heart disease and stroke, but just a few lifestyle changes can help make a difference. “Your liver produces cholesterol. In fact, it actually produces all the cholesterol you need. The tricky part is that our diet and lifestyle habits can also influence our cholesterol levels,” says Dr. Joshua Septimus, associate professor of clinical medicine and medical director of Houston Methodist Primary Care Group Same Day Clinics. Here are five science-backed ways to lower your cholesterol effectively. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Cholesterol performs vital functions in the human body, but not all cholesterol is created equal. “HDL, H for happy, that’s good cholesterol, it goes around your body and it’s like a vacuum cleaner,” says cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD. “It sucks out cholesterol from the blood vessels. Now, some people have something called dysfunctional HDL. So you can have very, very high levels of the good cholesterol, the HDL, happy cholesterol, but it goes around your body and does nothing. Now, the bad cholesterol is called LDL, L for lousy. And LDL, the higher level it is, the worse off you are. So when we look at epidemiological studies, when we look at genetic studies, people with very high levels of LDL, they go on to have heart attack and stroke.”
“The standard American diet is full of refined, processed foods, and these types of foods significantly contribute to high cholesterol levels. These are the foods you find in the inside aisles of grocery stores, such as packaged goods, frozen meals (although frozen fruit and veggies are fine!) and commercially baked snacks, as well as things like bacon and cured meats,” says Dr. Septimus, who recommends a diet focused on whole foods such as vegetables, fruits and unprocessed meats.
Keeping alcohol consumption at a minimum can help lower bad cholesterol, doctors advise. “This is a really important factor,” says Dr. Cho. “People who drink a lot of alcohol, because alcohol is made from sugar, they have very high triglycerides. And really high triglyceride increases your risk for diabetes, for pancreatitis, and having high triglycerides in women is especially problematic because it increases your risk for stroke. And so it’s really important to try to control your triglyceride.”
Exercise is a highly effective way of helping lower cholesterol levels. “Exercise is a great place to start if you’re trying to lower bad cholesterol,” says Dr. Cho, who recommends brisk walks, cycling, and swimming as the best exercises for lowering cholesterol. “But it doesn’t stop there. Combining exercise with healthier diet and lifestyle choices makes the most impact. Always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if your high cholesterol is putting you at more immediate risk for heart disease or stroke.”
Visceral fat—also known as abdominal fat—is strongly linked to dangerous cholesterol levels, so keep an eye on your waistline and don’t allow belly fat to build. “Importantly, central obesity is a marker for increased inflammation within the body, which can result in cholesterol buildup in your blood vessels,” warns Dr. Septimus. “It’s also a marker for unstable plaque. Remember, once plaque becomes unstable, the risk of stroke and heart attack increase.”