Understanding Cholesterol

cholesterolBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like, natural substance found in all cells of the body. Cholesterol has two sources, your body and the foods you consume.  In general, your body produces all the cholesterol it needs for healthy function.

The body uses cholesterol to produce hormones, Vitamin D and bile acids that digest fat. Lipoproteins are carriers that transport cholesterol through your blood stream to your cells.  Low density lipoproteins (LDL), high density lipoproteins (HDL) and triglycerides make up your total cholesterol count.  Your body needs a balance of LDL and HDL  in order to function and stay healthy.  As cholesterol is not dissolvable in the body, too much LDL and not enough HDL can lead to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

HDL, commonly referred to as the “good cholesterol”, helps prevent LDL or “bad cholesterol” from lodging in your artery walls.  HDL is believed to carry cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver where it can be eliminated.  When the LDL level is too high, cholesterol builds up in the artery walls causing blockage and reducing the flexibility of the arteries.  

Knowing your total blood cholesterol level is the first step toward improved cardiovascular health.  The American Heart Association presents the following guidelines:

Total Blood Cholesterol Levels:
  • Desirable and the lowest risk: Less than 200 mg/dL
  • Borderline High and greater risk: 200-239 mg/dL
  • High with twice the risk: 240 mg/dL and above
LDL Cholesterol Levels: Higher Levels = Higher Risk
  • Near or above optimal: 100-129 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 130-159 mg/dL
  • High: 160-189 mg/dL
  • Very high: 190 mg/dL and above
HDL Cholesterol Levels: Higher Levels = Less Risk
  • High Risk for Men: Less than 40 mg/dL
  • HIgh Risk for Women: Less than 50 mg/dL
  • Lower Risk: 40-59 mg/dL
  • Lowest Risk: 60 mg/dL and above

Healthy lifestyle habits can make a difference in your total cholesterol levels.  The Mayo Clinic recommends  these lifestyle guidelines to help reduce cholesterol or enhance the effect of cholesterol lowering medications:

1.      Manage your weight.  If you are overweight, losing 5-10% of your body weight can significantly reduce your LDL cholesterol.

2.     Chose heart healthy foods.

  • Saturated fats found in red meat and dairy raise LDL levels.  Monosaturated fats found in olive, peanut and canola oils are healthier options. Olive oil, especially, extra virgin, contains antioxidants that lower LDL levels.
  • Limit transfats such as those found in fried foods and commercially baked products containing partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Reduce cholesterol laden foods such as whole milk dairy products, organ meats and egg yolks.
  • Consume more fiber containing fruits and veggies that lower LDL cholesterol.
  • Fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna and sardines, contains Omega 3 fatty acids that can reduce your risk of developing coronary disease.
  • Walnuts, almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and help keep blood vessels healthy. 
  • Plant  sterols found naturally in grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds have powerful cholesterol reducing properties. 

3.     Exercise daily.  All activity is helpful, thirty minutes even better.  Moderate physical activity can raise HDL levels.

4.     Stop smoking. When you do, your blood pressure decreases almost immediately and your risk of heart attack decreases within 24 hours .  After one year, a former smoker’s risk is half that of a smoker. 

5.     Use alcohol in moderation.  More than one or two drinks per day can result in higher risk of heart failure or stroke. 

Cholesterol levels are affected by age, gender, family health history and diet.  Along with your healthy diet and exercise plan, consider these cholesterol affecting supplements to help improve your numbers and your overall heart health.

  •  Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, raises HDL levels and reduces triglycerides.
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – Reduces blood pressure and inflammation.  Raises HDL levels.
  • Plant Sterols – Helps block cholesterol absorption, lowering LDL levels.
  • Red Yeast Rice – Thought to lower LDL cholesterol.
  • L-Arginine  – Improves blood flow to the heart and flexibility of arterial walls.

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