According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Nearly 94 million U.S. adults age 20 or older have total cholesterol levels above 200 mg/dL. Twenty-eight million adults in the United States have total cholesterol levels above 240 mg/dL.” High cholesterol is a serious health concern and is known as a silent killer because there are often no symptoms. If left untreated high cholesterol can lead to “atherosclerosis can develop, ultimately leading to heart attack, heart failure, stroke or peripheral artery disease (PAD)” Eric Stahl, MD Non-Invasive Cardiologist at Staten Island University Hospital tells us. That said, high cholesterol is not only manageable, but preventable. By taking control of your health and managing your cholesterol levels, you can control the condition. The CDC says, “By living a healthy lifestyle, you can help keep your cholesterol in a healthy range and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Your body makes all of the cholesterol it needs, so you do not need to obtain cholesterol through foods. Eating lots of foods high in saturated fat and trans fat may contribute to high cholesterol and related conditions, such as heart disease.” A simple blood test is the only way to detect accurate cholesterol levels, so not skipping routine doctor visits is important. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with health experts who share what to know about cholesterol and effective ways to help lower it. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
What to Know About Cholesterol
Dr. Stahl says, “When excess cholesterol circulates in the blood, the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke, increases. While some cholesterol is needed for metabolism and good health, excess cholesterol can develop from poor diet, genes, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and obesity. There are different types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad cholesterol”. It binds to fats and builds in the walls of the arteries causing atherosclerosis. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good cholesterol” and it removes LDL from the bloodstream. Triglycerides is not a type of cholesterol, but is a fat that stores excess energy. Triglyceride levels are often reported on a cholesterol panel blood test.” Beata Rydyger, BSc, RHN, Registered Nutritionist based in Los Angeles, CA tells us, “Cholesterol is an essential component in the body. It is a fat-like substance that is an integral part of every cell membrane and is involved in many cell processes. Cholesterol is also a precursor for bile (used to break down fat and improve absorbability in the gut), it is the backbone of several steroid hormones and vitamin D, is used in tissue repair and serves as an antioxidant. In fact, 75% of cholesterol is produced in the body while only 25% comes from dietary sources. Certain types of cholesterol can be dangerous to health when oxidized by inflammatory triggers so ensuring cholesterol is low can be preventative.”
Misconceptions About Cholesterol
According to Dr. Stahl, “People who are thin or have a healthy BMI do not need to worry about high cholesterol. Even those with healthy BMIs and healthy lifestyles can have high cholesterol. Everyone should be screened, regardless of weight, diet, and exercise. People under the age of 35 do not have to worry about high cholesterol. While high cholesterol may not have a significant impact until later in life, the process of atherosclerosis begins in the second and third decade of life. Treating this process early minimizes the risk for developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease later. Some children may also inherit genetic cholesterol disorders which have increased risk of heart disease. Lifestyle modifications are enough to treat high cholesterol. Some people can treat their high cholesterol with lifestyle modifications, such as diet, weight loss and exercise. However, many are unable to effectively lower their cholesterol with lifestyle modifications alone. In these cases, medications such as statins are effective and safe. For those who cannot sufficiently lower their cholesterol on their own, the benefits of cholesterol reduction with statins far outweigh minimal risk of these medications.” Dr. Barry Sears, President of the non-profit Inflammation Research Foundation adds, “Cholesterol is critical for proper cell function and a building block for many hormones.The primary misconception is the cause of heart disease. In reality, heart disease is an inflammatory disease. Cholesterol per se is non-inflammatory, but oxidized cholesterol is pro-inflammatory.”
Risk Factors for High Cholesterol
Dr. Stahl explains, “There are a number of risk factors for high cholesterol. Poor diet, family member(s) with high cholesterol, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and obesity can all contribute to elevated cholesterol levels. For adults, cholesterol should be checked every five years if they are low risk, or more frequently if they have risk factors for hypercholesterolemia.” Francis Fabrizi Personal Trainer FJF Training says, “Some of the risk factors associated with high cholesterol include:
Age: As you get older, your risk of high cholesterol increases. The older you are, the higher your risk becomes. This is because as we age, our cells become less responsive to insulin—which means that our bodies don’t use glucose efficiently. This leads to high blood sugar levels and raises your risk for diabetes and high cholesterol.
Gender: Men tend to have higher cholesterol levels than women do. This is due to the fact that men have lower levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol than women do, as well as higher triglyceride levels (triglycerides are another type of fat found in your blood).
Family history: If any of your close family members have had heart disease or stroke, then your chances of developing these conditions are much higher than those without this family history.
It’s possible that what really affects our cholesterol levels is how many carbohydrates we eat. Studies have found that if you cut out carbohydrates from your diet, you can lower your triglycerides as well as improve other health markers like insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.
Anyone who eats a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol can be at risk. This includes red meat and processed foods that contain trans fats. It is important to understand that not all fats are bad for you. In fact, some fats can actually help lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids are one example. They are found in salmon, flaxseed oil, walnuts, soybeans, and canola oil. In addition to helping lower your risk for heart disease and stroke, omega-3s also play a role in brain function and may help improve mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder.”
This is When High Cholesterol Can Show Signs
According to Dr. Stahl, “Over time, high cholesterol leads to atherosclerosis and plaque buildup in the arteries. When atherosclerosis progresses, the arteries become blocked and can limit blood flow to various organs. Once the blockage is significant, patients will experience symptoms depending on the impacted organ. Treating high cholesterol with either lifestyle modifications or medications (often statins) is the best way to reverse and slow the progression of atherosclerosis.” Dr. Sears says, “It is the development of atherosclerotic lesions caused by inflammatory reactions that are the underlying cause of heart disease. Is it too late to manage at this stage? No, following an anti-inflammatory diet can begin to reverse such lesions.”
Effective Ways to Lower Cholesterol
Dr. Stahl states, “Everyone with high cholesterol should work to lower their levels through improving diet, increasing physical activity, and losing weight. The Mediterranean diet is a heart healthy diet to follow. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise. When these measures are insufficient, cholesterol lowering medications, such as statins, should be started.” Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD explains, “Cholesterol is a naturally occurring and necessary substance in the body that is used to make cells and regular hormones, among other tasks. However, too much cholesterol circulating in the body can be dangerous and puts the individual at risk for heart disease and stroke. This condition is known as hyperlipidemia and / or dyslipidemia. We are discovering more about what impacts a person’s cholesterol levels from genetics to diet to lifestyle habits. It is becoming more clear that genetics play a larger role in how the body processes cholesterol and one’s risk for high cholesterol. Still, there are some dietary habits that can exacerbate or lead to high cholesterol. Sugary beverages are among the top beverage contributors to high cholesterol. One 12 year study involving 6,000 participants found that sugar-sweetened beverages were consumed more by those with high cholesterol than those with normal cholesterol in the study.” Rydyger says, “Fortunately it is possible to lower cholesterol by making dietary and lifestyle changes. Smoking and physical inactivity are two major contributors to high cholesterol so avoiding both can be beneficial. A diet rich in fiber to promote better circulation and elimination is important, as well as foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids which have shown to increase HDL, decrease platelet aggregation and inflammation.”