Cholesterol is a key factor for individuals who want to lower their risk for stroke and maintain a healthy heart. High cholesterol can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, so it’s important to have your cholesterol tested and to know what you can do to keep your cholesterol levels in check.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol plays a massive role in how our bodies function and is an important measure of heart health. Cholesterol is an oily, waxy lipid in the blood that helps your body build cells and make vitamins and other hormones. The flip side to its inherent benefits is having levels that are too high, which increases your risk of cardiac and vascular complications.
High cholesterol typically doesn’t cause any symptoms, so the only way to ensure your levels of cholesterol are healthy is through blood tests.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
The most prevalent causes of high cholesterol levels are poor diet, smoking tobacco products, and lack of exercise. Genetics can also play a role in high cholesterol. Luckily, elevated cholesterol levels are easily managed through certain healthy practices.
The Different Types of Cholesterol
There are several types of cholesterol, both good and bad.
High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) Cholesterol
The 'good' cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, helps remove excess cholesterol from your bloodstream by moving it to the liver, an organ that breaks it down and disposes of it. The higher the HDL the better. The best ways to improve HDL are to engage in regular exercise, quit smoking and reduce your intake of foods high in saturated fat.
Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) Cholesterol
Often referred to as 'bad' cholesterol, LDL cholesterol is the culprit in many cases of heart disease and stroke.
Having high LDL cholesterol results in high plaque in the lining of blood vessels, making it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries and putting you at risk for severe complications, including a heart attack.
“It’s a fine balance between the two types of cholesterol,” says Melissa McKay, APN, a member of the Summit Health internal medicine team. “You want to lower LDL and raise HDL, but for many, this can become a tightrope act that can be hard to manage. It is important to make changes to lifestyle, and intervene with medications when necessary”
Ways to Manage Cholesterol
Luckily for those who experience high cholesterol, there are relatively simple ways to change your health.
Change Your Diet
Perhaps the most notable way to manage cholesterol is changing your diet. Consuming significant amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, and other unhealthy foods can raise cholesterol levels. Some examples of foods to limit or avoid include:
- Sugary foods should be limited. While sugar doesn’t contain cholesterol, it can reduce your HDL and increase LDL
- Foods high in fat such as cream, butter, and animal fats
- Processed meat
- Fast food
- Full fat dairy products such as milk, cheese, and eggs
Another way to manage cholesterol is by eating nutritious foods that contain fiber. These can be good diet staples that supply important vitamins, minerals, and protein. Some of these foods include:
- Whole grains such as quinoa, barley, brown rice
- A wide fresh veggies and fruits
- Legumes such as chickpeas and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
In addition to these nutritious foods, consumption of low-fat dairy and lean, grass-fed meats and wild caught fish in moderation can be part of a heart healthy diet.
While smoking is a substantial negative hit to overall health, it significantly impacts heart health. Excessive smoking hardens arteries, making plaque and higher cholesterol even more dangerous to an individual.
To avoid damaging your blood vessels, don't start smoking, and try to quit if you do.
A great way to promote heart health is by exercising. Exercising naturally helps raise good cholesterol (HDL) and lower bad cholesterol (LDL). The CDC recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity.
For some, it is recommended to take cholesterol medication while improving diet, quitting smoking, and exercising. It is important to discuss your atherosclerotic risk factors with your doctor so that together you make the best decision in supporting a healthy heart and life.
Next Steps for Managing Cholesterol
With this newfound knowledge, it's time to examine your eating habits and lifestyle choices to see if you're at risk for high cholesterol. To get a better idea of where you stand and if you're at risk for heart disease and other complications, be sure to visit your primary care provider or a member of Summit Health's cardiology department. They can conduct comprehensive screenings and tests to better determine your heart health. Also, consider exploring the cardiopulmonary department for information on heart and lung health.
For more information or to schedule an appointment to manage your cholesterol and heart health, call 908-273-4300.