Cholesterol plays an important role in your overall health—but how much do you know about it? Understanding what cholesterol is, how it works in the body, and why it matters can help you stay healthier, longer.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance naturally found in your blood. Your body uses cholesterol to make hormones that help cells communicate with each other, along with many other functions. It’s essential for good health—up to a point. Your body creates all the cholesterol you need so it’s the cholesterol you take in through the foods you eat, along with other lifestyle choices, that can lead to a condition called hyperlipidemia or hypercholesterolemia, otherwise known as high cholesterol.
High cholesterol doesn’t have any outward symptoms, so it’s usually diagnosed through a lab test called a lipid panel. This panel measures the different fats in your blood to help assess your risk for heart disease.
There are two kinds of cholesterol that are measured, you may hear them referred to as “good” and “bad” cholesterol. The good one is high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. It picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to your liver. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the bad guy, transports cholesterol particles throughout your body. This is the cholesterol that builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow so it’s harder for your blood to flow.
In addition to HDL and LDL, a lipid panel also measures triglycerides—another type of fat found in your blood. Like LDL, it can also cause the walls of your arteries to harden, increasing the possible risk of heart attack or stroke.
If you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol or triglycerides, you might be advised to make certain lifestyle changes and/or start taking a medication or supplements. But you don’t have to simply wait for high cholesterol to catch up with you. There are many ways to prevent high cholesterol that you can start today.
Healthy habits can be powerful tools for keeping cholesterol at bay. While some health factors are out of your control, there are ways to help your levels stay within a healthy range.
Eat less saturated fats and trans fats. High levels of saturated fats are found in animal products like cheese, fatty meats, and creamy dairy products, as well as palm oil which is used in many processed foods. Both saturated and trans fats raise your levels of LDL cholesterol, while trans fats lower good cholesterol as well.
Choose healthy whole foods most of the time. Look for lean cuts of meat, chicken breast, seafood, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Low-fat or nonfat dairy are also good alternatives.
Increase your dietary fiber with foods like oatmeal and beans. These foods help prevent and manage high levels of LDL cholesterol but help promote the good cholesterol.
Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight or obese, it can change how your body uses cholesterol and may slow down the removal of LDL cholesterol from your blood.
Quit smoking. Smoking causes hardening of the arteries—which can compound the negative effects of high cholesterol.
Move your body. Getting exercise is important to maintaining a healthy weight and can also help to lower your cholesterol level.
The type of lifestyle changes that help to prevent or reduce high cholesterol also contribute to your overall well-being. A MOBE Guide or Pharmacist can help you make connections between the choices you make every day and the effect it has on your health and happiness.