Cholesterol is an essential part of your body that’s used to create new cells.
In fact, your liver naturally produces all of the cholesterol your body needs every day.
However, many foods that come from animal products, such as poultry and red meat, also have cholesterol.
While eating these in moderation is generally healthy, having too much can lead to a variety of health problems.
Let’s dive in and take a look at both the good and bad side of this essential substance.
What is Cholesterol?
In simple terms, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s naturally synthesized by all animals.
Because we already naturally produce it, our levels increase whenever we eat any type of animal product.
Cholesterol has a variety of key functions that are essential for our survival:
- Maintains our cell membrane structure
- Assist in the synthesis of vitamin D
- Helps produce steroid hormones
Cholesterol travels through our blood stream in round containers called lipoproteins, which as the name suggests, contain both fats and proteins.
The two types of lipoproteins are called high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). These are also the names for “good” and “bad” cholesterol respectively.
Now let’s take a closer look at each of these.
What is Good Cholesterol?
“Good cholesterol” is the nickname of high-density lipoprotein.
An easy way to remember this is to think of the “H” in “high-density” as “healthy.”
What Does Good Cholesterol Do?
HDL is “good” because it removes cholesterol from other parts of your body, and brings it back to your liver. From there, your liver can clear out the excess from your body.
In other words, HDL is like your body’s vacuum cleaner for cholesterol, helping reduce the chances that “bad” cholesterol will end up in your arteries.
Good cholesterol has a variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Furthermore, high levels of HDL are strongly correlated with a decrease in risk for cardiovascular diseases, heart attack, and stroke.
How to Raise Good Cholesterol?
Fortunately, you can increase your HDL levels with certain diet and lifestyle changes.
Some, but not all of these, include:
- Adapting the Mediterranean diet
- Increasing your niacin levels
- Exercising regularly
- Quitting smoking
As always, talk with your primary care physician before making any major lifestyle or dietary changes.
What is Bad Cholesterol?
On the opposite end, “bad cholesterol” is the nickname of low-density lipoprotein.
Think of the “L” in “low-density” as “lousy.”
Similarly to HDL, low-density lipoproteins are made of fat and proteins. However, while HDL removes cholesterol from your arteries, LDL transports it to your arteries.
Excessive amounts of LDL can cause buildup of plaque in your arterial walls, causing them to harden. This is called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is considered a heart problem, though it can occur anywhere in your blood vessels. It can lead to several other problems such as coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, or kidney problems.
Because of the many complications associated with high LDL, it’s important to understand what causes them.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
A variety of factors, such as genetics, age, diet, and other lifestyle factors can increase your risk of developing high LDL levels.
There are a few health conditions which may change the way we metabolize cholesterol and lead to increased LDL levels.
Diabetes can lead to to increased LDL levels and triglycerides. Unfortunately, diabetes can also lower HDL levels and cause further heart problems.
Obesity changes the mechanism in which your body processes cholesterol, and causes LDL levels to increase.
Hypothyroidism lowers your body’s ability to remove LDL efficiently. One study even showed that a mild reduction in thyroid-stimulating hormone levels can cause significant increases.
Smoking causes your blood cells to become stickier and more likely to form clots. This unfortunately leads to an increase in LDL levels.
In addition, smoking can alter lipid-transporting enzymes that metabolize HDL.
In other words, smoking negatively impacts both the function and amount of good cholesterol in your body.
A sedentary lifestyle lowers the production of good cholesterol.
One 2015 study found strong correlations between sedentary activities such as screen time, and lower HDL levels, even when adjusting for factors like age and weight.
Furthermore, a sedentary lifestyle increases low-grade inflammation throughout your body, increasing your risk for disease.
What are the Worst Foods for High Cholesterol?
Generally speaking, foods that are high in saturated fat and trans fat will be bad for your cholesterol levels.
Coconut oil, though currently a trendy food, has lots of saturated fat. In fact, coconut oil has more saturated fat than butter or olive oil. That said, coconut oil does increase HDL levels, however there hasn’t been enough research done to confirm whether or not its health benefits outweigh the high saturated fat content.
Red meat is healthy when consumed in moderation. However, too much red meat (especially fatty or processed meat) can lead to high LDL levels as well as several other health problems.
Sugar can lead to lowered HDL and higher LDL levels. A high amount of sugar in your diet may increase your risk for cardiovascular disease mortality.
Refined carbs such as white bread or sugary cereals increase the amount of cholesterol your liver produces. One study showed a significant correlation between unhealthy cholesterol levels and excessive amounts of processed carbohydrates.
Alcohol can be healthy when consumed in moderation. In fact, moderate consumption can boost HDL levels and lower your risk of heart disease. However, excessive drinking can increase your triglyceride levels, raise your blood pressure, and cause congestive heart failure.
How to Lower Cholesterol?
While a healthy lifestyle should always be your first line of defense, some people may need to take medications to help.
Statins are the most common type of medication used to lower cholesterol. They work by blocking the enzyme responsible for production in the body which in turn lowers the amount that enters your bloodstream.
Atorvastatin (Lipitor) and rosuvastatin (Crestor) are two common types of statins. While generally safe, statins might have some side effects such as headaches, nausea, and muscle soreness. If you’re taking a statin, make sure you take them exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
Cholesterol absorption inhibitors are another type of medication to lower LDL cholesterol. As the name suggests, they inhibit your intestines from absorbing the cholesterol you consume.
Ezetimibe (Zetia) is the most common type of cholesterol absorption inhibitor and is often prescribed alongside a statin. Common side effects of these types of medications are stomach pain and fatigue.
Bile acid resin is a type of drug that also works in your intestine by attaching to bile from the liver and preventing it from being absorbed back into the bloodstream. Because bile is made from cholesterol, this effect reduces that amount of cholesterol in your body.
Common resin medications include cholestyramine (Prevalite) and colesevelam (WelChol).
Too much LDL cholesterol can lead to plaque building up in the walls of your arteries. If this buildup gets bad enough, it can lead to blockages in your blood vessels.
When this happens, doctors perform a procedure called an angioplasty, where they attach a small balloon onto a catheter, then insert the catheter into the blocked vessel to clear the pathway.
While this procedure doesn’t actually lower cholesterol, it reduces your risk of a heart attack.
An angioplasty is a minimally invasive procedure, but as mentioned before, lifestyle changes should be your first line of defense against high cholesterol.
How to Lower Cholesterol Naturally?
Lowering your cholesterol naturally through diet and lifestyle is the most effective way to maintain a healthy heart and body.
Here are some of the best things you can do to lower your cholesterol naturally.
As we’ve mentioned before, smoking can have a dramatically negative impact on both HDL and LDL levels.
The good news is that if you quit smoking, you’ll see the benefits quickly.
In fact, you’ll start to see improvements in your blood circulation less than three months after quitting.
What’s more, you’ll cut your heart disease risk in half within a year of quitting.
This is the big one, and for most of us, the hardest.
The best way to improve your cholesterol naturally is to reduce how much saturated and trans fat you consume.
A few ways to lower saturated fat are:
- Cut back on fatty red meats and replace them with fish, skinless chicken, and turkey.
- Limit your butter/lard intake and replace it with canola or olive oil.
- Get rid of extra sauces and dressings with your food or order it on the side.
Reducing your saturated and trans fat intake will not only lower LDL levels, but also improve HDL levels giving you double the benefit. In addition, reducing your saturated fat can also lead to weight loss, which can amplify those benefits.
Exercise is one of the best ways to increase your HDL levels.
In fact, exercise can help improve your cholesterol even if you’re overweight.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week to lower your LDL cholesterol.
A few good exercises include jogging and running, lifting weights, swimming, taking a brisk walk, and doing yoga.
All of the Above
Here’s the bottom line: improving your cholesterol doesn’t always have to mean huge dramatic lifestyle changes.
Sometimes it’s as simple as cutting back on the beef and going for a few extra walks every week.
Making small changes to your overall lifestyle will go a long way in time.
Find what works best for you and stick to it.
Work with a trusted healthcare provide and if you have any questions about medications or access to care, email us at email@example.com and we’ll be happy to help.