Chances are, you’ve read about cholesterol wreaking havoc with your body, especially where your heart is concerned.
There’s a reason it gets such bad press; over half of all adults in England have raised cholesterol, increasing the risk of cardiac diseases and strokes.
But the story isn’t always as simple as that. When it comes to cholesterol, it’s about striking a healthy balance.
Here’s everything you need to know about this fascinating biological matter: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that’s stored in the fat (lipid) content of one’s blood stream. It’s actually important to have a certain amount of “good” cholesterol in one’s system.
Cholesterol, and our other body fats, cannot dissolve in our blood. They must be transported by special carriers called lipoproteins.
While there are numerous kinds (too many to cover here), the two that are most important are the high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and the low-density lipoproteins (LDL).
There is a third kind, which is referred to as Lp(a), which can increase one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. We’ll cover that one here, as well.
‘Bad cholesterol’ – LDL cholesterol
Low-density lipoprotein delivers cholesterol from your liver to the cells around your body. In excess, this ‘bad’ cholesterol can stick to your artery walls, causing a build up of plaque.
Plaque narrows your arteries, restricts blood flow, and leaves you susceptible to blood clots.
A clogged artery in your brain or heart can lead to an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.
‘Good cholesterol’ – HDL cholesterol
HDL cholesterol earns its stripes as ‘good’ cholesterol thanks to it eliminating the ‘bad’ cholesterol from your bloodstream.
It redirects surplus cholesterol back to the liver where it’s broken down and removed by your body, reducing the possibility of circulatory or heart diseases.
Since women naturally have higher HDL cholesterol than men, they should aim for an HDL level of 1.2mmol/L and over. Men, on the other hand, should aim for a level above 1mmol/L.
HDL, LDL, & Lp(a)…What ARE These?
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are known as “good cholesterol”. Most experts agree that HDL moves the cholesterol from the arteries to the liver, where it is broken down and leaves the body through the natural evacuation process.
A higher HDL level seems to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. Keep in mind, though, that a lower HDL level in one’s body (-40 mg/dL in men, -50 mg d/L in women) is a warning signal of greater risk of one or both.
HDL seems to remove excess cholesterol from the plaques which build up in one’s blood vessels, thereby inhibiting or slowing their growth.
This is what makes it so important to the human body. Approximately 1/3 to 1/4 of the cholesterol in our bodies is carried by the HDL.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are the major transporters of cholesterol in our blood. One can experience a build up on the walls of the arteries which supply blood to our hearts and brains, if too much LDL enters the blood stream.
When combined with other substances
When combined with other substances, it forms plaques. Plaques are hard, thick coatings that can clog one’s arteries and decrease blood flow to the heart or the brain.
Should the blood not move swiftly enough, there is danger of a blood clot forming near the plaques.
When this occurs in the arteries leading to the heart, one is at greater risk of a heart attack. If it happens in the arteries which lead to one’s brain, there is a higher risk of stroke.
If one’s LDL level is 160 mg/dL or higher, this is an indication of a greater risk of heart disease. And if one has already been diagnosed with heart disease, it is strongly recommended that one maintain a level of less than 100 mg/dL.
A little known (by the general population) lipoprotein that can also cause a greater risk is the Lp(a) cholesterol lipoprotein.
This is a generic variation of plasma (the “fluid” which carries the blood cells through one’s blood stream) LDL.
When one’s Lp(a) level is higher, one can more quickly develop the plaque build up which physicians and specialists refer to as “arthersclerosis”.
Although there has been no conclusive evidence drawn as to WHY Lp(a) contributes to the increased risk of heart disease. It is commonly believed that the natural lesions which occur in our artery walls may contain substances that interact with it.
This may lead to the build up of the fatty deposits.
From Where Do We Get Cholesterol?
The general consensus is that the human body is capable of producing the cholesterol that one needs to remain healthy.
The body – most especially the liver – produces roughly 1,000 mg per day.
Therefore the cholesterol consumed (by the average person eating the typical foods such as whole milk dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, fish and seafood) is not really necessary to maintain the healthy level which one needs.
Two of the biggest culprits which contribute to the excessive consumption of cholesterol are transfats and saturated fats.
But other fats consumed in foods can also raise blood cholesterol. While some of the excess fat is removed from the body by the liver. Most heart specialists recommend that the average person limit himself/herself to less than 300 mg daily.
And if one has been diagnosed with heart disease, that level should be less than 200 mg daily. If one has been diagnosed with extremely high cholesterol, even more drastic measures may be necessary to bring it under control.
How Do I Control My Intake?
A proven and accepted measure of control is to limit one’s intake to no more that 6 ounces of lean meat/fish/poultry daily, and to consume only low fat/no fat dairy products.
Effective substitutes for the protein necessary for good health can be found in beans and vegetables with high protein content.
It is also recommended that one adopt a regular exercise regimen. Even a moderate amount of daily activity can help to increase the movement of blood through one’s body.
Physical activities such as leisurely walking, gardening, light yard work, housework and slow dancing are often prescribed as ideally suited for those who need a daily routine to help control the cholesterol levels.
A more intense regimen can include brisk walking, jogging, swimming and weight-lifting. Aerobic exercising is an excellent way to increase one’s breathing and heart rates.
Side benefits of a regularly scheduled exercise program can include weight control, reducing one’s risk of developing diabetes, and helping to keep one’s blood pressure at a healthy level.
Regular moderate to intense exercise can also help to strengthen one’s heart and lungs.
To Smoke or Not to Smoke…
Most physicians and specialists recommend that no one smoke. And it has been proven that tobacco smoking increases the risk of heart disease.
One’s intake of oxygen, which is a necessary component for good vascular circulation and health, is drastically reduced.
Plus, smoking is detrimental to HDL cholesterol levels and increases the possibility of blood clots. Not to mention the risks of causing cancer in one’s body.
The Effects of Alcohol on Cholesterol Levels
The moderate consumption of alcohol has shown, in some studies, to actually promote higher HDL cholesterol levels.
With that said one must weigh the risks of alcoholism, obesity, stroke, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer, and sometimes depression.
Exercise moderation (not more than 1-2 drinks daily for men, not more than 1 drink daily for women). And if you don’t drink, don’t start. There are better and safer alternatives for controlling one’s cholesterol.
- HDL is “good” cholesterol
- LDL is “bad” cholesterol
- An exercise regimen can help in lowering LDL and increasing HDL
- Cholesterol can be controlled with a sensible diet, for many people
- Smoking can increase the risks of lower HDL levels and the possibility of blood clots
Consult your physician or health care provider before embarking on any exercise regimen, or the consumption of alcohol, as a method to control one’s cholesterol.
He or she can direct you to what steps you need to take in order to ensure the best results for your efforts.
Have an annual screening (usually a blood drawing) to determine your cholesterol levels.
Be sure to discuss family history and other issues which your doctor may want to know before deciding whether or not you should be checked for the Lp(a) lipoproteins.
He or she can better determine your risks, the diagnosis, and possible treatment (which may include prescription medication) when fully informed.
Though cholesterol serves an important purpose in the body, too much of the ‘bad’ kind can block your arteries and leave you vulnerable to circulatory and cardiac diseases.
If your cholesterol is sky high, fine-tuning your lifestyle and diet should be your first line of defense.
Move more, fill up on cholesterol-busting foods, and stop smoking! And if you’re concerned about your cholesterol levels, book an appointment with your GP for a simple blood test.