Cholesterol frequently gets a bum rap, but it’s necessary for your body to function properly. Your body uses cholesterol to make hormones and vitamin D, and support digestion. Your liver generates enough cholesterol to handle these tasks, but your body doesn’t just get cholesterol from your liver. Cholesterol is also in foods such as meat, dairy, and poultry. If you eat a lot of these foods, your cholesterol levels may become too high.
HDL versus LDL cholesterol
There are two forms of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Lipoproteins are made of fat and proteins. Cholesterol moves through your body while inside lipoproteins.
HDL is thought as “good cholesterol” as a result of it transports cholesterol to your liver to be expelled from your body. HDL helps rid your body of excess cholesterol so it’s less likely to end up in your arteries. LDL is termed “bad cholesterol” as a result of it takes cholesterol to your arteries, wherever it should collect in artery walls. Too much cholesterol in your arteries may lead to a buildup of plaque known as atherosclerosis. This can increase the risk of blood clots in your arteries. If a blood clot breaks away and blocks an artery in your heart or brain, you may have a stroke or heart attack.
Plaque buildup may also reduce blood flow and oxygen to major organs. Oxygen deprivation to your organs or arteries may lead to kidney disease or peripheral arterial disease, additionally to a heart attack or stroke.
Know your numbers
According to the Centers for Disease Control Trusted Source, over 31 percent of Americans have high LDL cholesterol. You may not even know it because high cholesterol doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms.
The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is through a blood test that measures cholesterol in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). When you get your numbers checked, you’ll receive results for:
- Total blood cholesterol:This includes your HDL, LDL, and 20 percent of your total triglycerides.
- Triglycerides:This number should be below 150 mg/dL. Triglycerides are a common type of fat. If your triglycerides are high and your LDL is also high or your HDL is low, you’re at risk of developing atherosclerosis.
- HDL:The higher this number, the better. It should be at least higher than 55 mg/dL for females and 45 mg/dL for males.
- LDL:The lower this number, the better. It should be no more than 130 mg/dL if you don’t have heart disease, blood vessel disease, or diabetes. It should be no more than 100 mg/dL if you have any of those conditions or high total cholesterol.
Causes of high cholesterol
Lifestyle factors that may cause high cholesterol are:
- a diet high in red meat, full-fat dairy products, saturated fats, trans fats, and processed foods
- a large waist circumference (over 40 inches for men or over 35 inches for women)
- lack of regular exercise
According to a 2013 review Trusted Source, smokers typically have lower HDL cholesterol than nonsmokers. Research shows quitting smoking can increase HDL. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs or other methods you can use to quit smoking.
It’s unclear if stress directly causes high cholesterol. Unmanaged stress may lead to behaviors that can increase LDL and total cholesterol such as overeating fatty foods, inactivity, and increased smoking.
In some cases, high LDL is inherited. This condition is called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). FH is caused by a genetic mutation that affects the ability of a person’s liver to get rid of extra LDL cholesterol. This may lead to high LDL levels and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke at a young age.
How to treat high cholesterol
To treat high cholesterol, doctors often recommend these lifestyle changes:
- stopping smoking
- eating a healthy diet
- exercising regularly
- reducing stress
Sometimes lifestyle changes aren’t enough, especially if you have FH. You may need one or more medications such as:
- statins to help your liver get rid of cholesterol
- bile-acid-binding medications to help your body use extra cholesterol to produce bile
- cholesterol absorption inhibitors to prevent your small intestines from absorbing cholesterol and releasing it into your bloodstream
- injectable medications that cause your liver to absorb more LDL cholesterol
- Medications and supplements to reduce triglyceride levels may also be used such as niacin (Niacor), omega-3 fatty acids, and fibrates.