Did you know your body needs cholesterol to build cells, and make vitamins and hormones? When we hear about cholesterol, we might automatically think of it as being “bad” or negative. But it’s only a problem when we have too much of the “bad” kind of cholesterol or not enough of the “good.” Read on to learn how this waxy substance plays a big part in our overall health.
What is high cholesterol?
Unhealthy or high cholesterol levels occur when there’s too much of the “bad” kind (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) or not enough of the “good” kind (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) floating around in our blood. When those levels are balanced, cholesterol flows freely through our blood vessels and helps keep us healthy. When those levels get out of balance, there’s a higher chance cholesterol will build up in the inner walls of the arteries that bring blood to the heart and brain. This can narrow arteries and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.1
What is HDL and LDL?
There are 2 types of cholesterol — HDL and LDL. You could think of HDL as the “good” kind of cholesterol and LDL as the “bad.”2
- HDL: This type of cholesterol helps clear out excess LDL cholesterol in the blood and brings it to your liver, which breaks it down and helps your body remove it.
- LDL: This type of cholesterol can build up in your arteries and cause a blockage that may result in a heart attack or stroke. And, it can lead to narrowing the arteries so much that healthy blood flow is reduced throughout the body. LDL is a known culprit of heart disease.
How is cholesterol measured?
A simple blood test called a lipid panel can measure your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels, which show up in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). This test can be used to help estimate the risk of heart disease, heart attack and overall cardiovascular health. You can expect to see 4 different types of measurements, including your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood).3
What are risk factors for high cholesterol?
Family history of high cholesterol can play a role for some people. It’s possible to inherit genes that can cause too much cholesterol in the body. Other associated factors that can raise your risk for developing high cholesterol include unhealthy lifestyle choices, getting older and certain medical conditions. Some lifestyle factors, like these, can contribute to high cholesterol:4
- An unhealthy diet
- Lack of exercise
- Smoking or being around tobacco smoke
- Being overweight
How can I lower my cholesterol?
Lowering cholesterol through healthy habits, like diet and exercise is a great place to start — plus regular trips to your doctor for a lipid panel. Here are 3 lifestyle tips:5
- Physical activity: Exercising most days of the week may help raise your good cholesterol levels. Plus, aerobic activity helps keep your heart healthy — something extra important if you’re struggling with poor cholesterol. Pencil in a 30-minute walk, enjoy a bike ride or pick up a sport.
- Diet: Lowering cholesterol with diet can be really effective, especially when you work to limit saturated and trans fats. In fact, there are specific diets dedicated to heart health, like the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. Foods to help lower cholesterol include things like fish, nuts, avocados and much more.
- Don’t smoke. Or, consider quitting. Tobacco lowers your healthy cholesterol. Plus, a smoker with unhealthy cholesterol levels is at a greater risk of coronary heart disease compared to a smoker with healthy cholesterol.