Cholesterol is a type of waxy fat that’s in your blood cells. Cholesterol is necessary for your body to produce hormones, help your organs grow and digest food. Your liver creates a sufficient amount of cholesterol it needs, but some foods also have cholesterol in them, such as eggs, meat and dairy.
Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in lipoproteins, which have proteins on the outside and fat on the inside. When we talk about the two main types of cholesterol, LDL and HDL, we’re talking about the kinds of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol. Your body requires both types to remain healthy.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is sometimes referred to as “good cholesterol.” HDL carries cholesterol from various parts of your body to your liver where it can then be removed from your body.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is often nicknamed “bad cholesterol.” Most cholesterol is LDL and when someone has too much LDL cholesterol, it can create plaque that clogs their arteries and prevents blood from flowing efficiently. Too much cholesterol buildup over years can potentially lead to heart disease, coronary artery disease, a heart attack or stroke.
High cholesterol can result from an unhealthy diet and lifestyle, but it can also be genetic. If a close relative has high cholesterol, you are more at risk for having it. This is due to familial hypercholesterolemia, an inherited condition. People with this condition have a genetic mutation that makes their liver incapable of removing excess LDL, raising their levels of “bad” cholesterol.
Luckily, you can make a few lifestyle changes to help you reduce cholesterol levels. If you’re concerned about high cholesterol, consider taking a few of these preventative actions.
- Watch your waistline. Being overweight can put you at a greater risk for high cholesterol, especially if you have a BMI of 30 or higher or if you have a waist circumference of at least 40 inches (for a man) or at least 35 inches (for a woman). If you’re within this zone, aim to lose weight through exercise and diet.
- Hit the gym. Regardless of your weight, exercise is important for staying healthy. Not only does it help you maintain a healthy weight, but it also boosts your HDL cholesterol levels. Ideally, you should be exercising at least 30 minutes a day, or at least three or four days a week for an hour at a time.
- Limit your intake of saturated and trans fats. Foods with saturated or trans fats can boost your LDL levels, so if you’re concerned about high cholesterol, try not to overdo it with these foods. Remember, LDL cholesterol is necessary for your body, but you don’t want too much of it. Foods high in saturated fats include cheese, meat, egg yolks and butter. Foods high in trans fats include fried and packaged foods.
- Eat healthy fats and fiber. Focus your diet on foods that can lower your cholesterol. Soluble fiber, found in whole grains, fruits, beans and lentils, can help lower LDL levels. Replace saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated fats, which can be found in olive oil, lean meat and low-fat dairy. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, nuts and seeds, are also beneficial as helping your body increase HDL cholesterol levels.
- Manage your diabetes. If you have diabetes, it’s important to proactively manage it. High blood sugar levels can increase your LDL cholesterol levels and lower your HDL cholesterol levels. This condition is known as diabetic dyslipidemia and can be deadly, as it puts you at risk for premature coronary heart disease.
- Quit smoking. It shouldn’t be surprising that cigarettes are bad for your health, including your cholesterol. Smoking damages your blood vessel walls, causing them to build up fatty deposits. These clogged arteries can potentially lead to a heart attack or stroke. Within one year of quitting smoking, your risk of heart disease will drop to half that of a smoker.
- Watch your alcohol intake. The jury is still out on the effect alcohol has on cholesterol. While alcohol won’t increase your cholesterol, health professionals say that how much and how often you drink can impact your heart health. You don’t have to cut out all alcohol, but it’s best to drink in moderation.
- Take medication. If you have familial hypercholesterolemia or severely high cholesterol levels, changing your diet may not be enough and your doctor may recommend taking cholesterol medication. Many of these medications work to lower your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. If a doctor recommends medication, it’s important to take it regularly and according to its instructions to help keep your cholesterol in check.
Working to lower your cholesterol may help slow or even stop plaque buildup in your arteries. Along with the preventative measures, consider learning more about your genetics and whether or not you have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure based on your family history.
The Pathway Cardiac DNA Insight test helps identify 23 traits associated with an increased risk of developing certain heart-related health conditions, identify a genetic risk for decreased HDL or increased LDL cholesterol and provides insight into your potential responses to commonly prescribed medications, so your physician can develop a more personalized treatment for you. With this information in hand, you and your physician can make more informed and confident decisions regarding your diet and fitness regimen.