Cholesterol helps your body build new cells, isolate nerves, and produce hormones. Normally, the liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs. But cholesterol also enters your body from dietary sources, such as animal-based foods like milk, eggs, and meat. High intake of trans fats, saturated fats, and simple sugars may increase your levels as well.
How Does It Cause Heart Disease?
When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries. Over time, this buildup causes the arteries to harden – a process called atherosclerosis. The arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart muscle is slowed down or blocked. The blood carries oxygen to the heart, and if enough blood and oxygen can not reach your heart, you may suffer chest pain. If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by a sudden blockage, the result is a heart attack.
There are two forms of cholesterol that most Americans are familiar with: low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good” cholesterol). These are the forms in which cholesterol travels in the blood. LDLs have little protein and high levels of cholesterol and HDL has a lot of protein and very little cholesterol.
LDL is the main source of artery-clogging plaque. HDL actually works to clear cholesterol from the blood.
Triglycerides are another fat in our bloodstream. Research shows that high levels of triglycerides are also linked to heart disease.
What Are the Symptoms?
High cholesterol itself does not cause any symptoms; so many people are unaware that their cholesterol levels are too high. Therefore, it is important to find out what your cholesterol numbers are because lower cholesterol levels that are too high lessens the risk for developing heart disease and reduces the chance of a heart attack or dying of heart disease, even if you already have it.
What Numbers Should I Have?
Everyone older than age 20 should get their cholesterol levels measured at least once every five years. The test performed is a blood test called a lipoprotein profile. That includes:
- Total cholesterol level
- LDL (the “bad” cholesterol)
- HDL (the “good” cholesterol)
What Affects The Levels?
A variety of factors can affect your cholesterol levels. They include:
- Diet. Saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol in the food you eat increase cholesterol levels. Reducing the amount of saturated fat and trans fats and cholesterol in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level. Eating too much sugar and too many simple carbohydrates will increase your cholesterol levels as well.
- Weight. In addition to being a risk factor for heart disease, being overweight can also increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL, total cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels, as well as raise your HDL.
- Exercise. Regular exercise can lower LDL and raise HDL. You should try to be physically active for 30 minutes on most days.
- Age and Gender. As we get older, cholesterol levels rise. Before menopause, women tend to have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After menopause, however, women's LDL levels tend to rise.
- Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
- Medical conditions. Occidentally a medical condition may cause an elevation of cholesterol levels in the blood. These include hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland), liver disease, and kidney disease.
- Medications. Some drugs, such as steroids and progestins may increase the “bad” and decrease the “good” cholesterol.
Are There Foods or Other Drugs I Should Avoid?
Ask your doctor about the other drugs you are taking, including herbals and vitamins, and their impact on cholesterol-lowering supplements . You should not drink grapefruit juice while taking these supplements, as it can interfere with the liver's ability to metabolize these medications.