As you age, you’re bound to hear a number of advertisements, family members and doctors warn you about the dangers of “high cholesterol.” It’s a sentiment that’s echoed everywhere, but what does it actually mean? What is cholesterol, and how can it affect your health?
The basics of cholesterol
Cholesterol—a waxy substance that resembles fat—isn’t a single compound. There are actually multiple types of cholesterol, and not all of them are bad for you. In fact, your body needs cholesterol to perform some important functions.
The majority of your body’s cholesterol is made by your liver and distributed through your blood. The cholesterol your body makes is essential for cell building, hormone regulation and fat digestion. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to stay healthy.
Cholesterol can also be acquired through your diet in animal products like eggs and red meat. Despite popular belief, dietary cholesterol does not typically have a significant effect on your blood cholesterol.
However, some foods may increase your blood cholesterol. These are foods that contain high amounts of saturated and trans fats. It is believed that these fats increase the amount of harmful cholesterol in your blood.
Aside from blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol, you may also hear of two types of cholesterol called HDL and LDL, or “good” and “bad” cholesterol. These terms actually refer to the lipoproteins (forms of protein) that carry cholesterol through the blood.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” kind of cholesterol. LDL cholesterol can deposit cholesterol inside your blood vessels, causing “plaque” buildup. This causes disruptions to blood flow within the vessels, thickens the arterial walls (called atherosclerosis) and may eventually lead to a heart attack.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is “good” cholesterol. These lipoproteins carry cholesterol away from the arteries and to the liver, which flushes it out of your body. You want higher levels of HDL cholesterol to minimize your risk for health problems.
Cholesterol and its bodily effects
As noted, cholesterol itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It is when levels of LDL cholesterol climb too high and levels of HDL cholesterol fall too low that your risk for health problems increases, including:
- Coronary heart disease
- Heart attack or stroke
- Peripheral heart disease
Most notably, having high cholesterol increases your risk of developing coronary heart disease. Low-density lipoproteins deposit cholesterol into your arterial walls. After an inflammatory response from the immune system occurs, this cholesterol hardens into a substance called plaque.
Over time, plaque may continue to form along the inside of your arteries. This does multiple things. One, it weakens the arteries and forces them to be less flexible. Two, it narrows the interior of the blood vessels, limiting the amount of blood and oxygen that can pass through. After a moderate amount of plaque has built up, you may begin to experience angina, or chest pain. This is a result of the heart muscles not getting blood supply fast enough.
Plaque can sometimes rupture inside the arteries, and a blood clot will form. If the blood clot grows large enough to block the entirety of the blood vessel, blood and oxygen will not be able to reach its destination, causing a heart attack or stroke.
High cholesterol can also have some effects on other parts of your body. If the blood vessels leading to your arms or legs are narrowed or blocked due to plaque and blood clots, you may experience peripheral artery disease, causing pain and/or numbness.
Cholesterol can also lead to the formation of painful gallstones in your gallbladder. Bile with an excessive amount of cholesterol can harden in the organ. Gallstones that become large enough can cause severe abdominal pain and may require surgery to be removed.
Managing your cholesterol
The goal in managing your cholesterol is not to remove cholesterol from your body entirely, but to prevent high levels of LDL cholesterol. A few risk factors that might raise your LDL cholesterol levels include having type 2 diabetes, being obese and smoking.
In order to prevent high cholesterol, you must make healthy choices. Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight contribute to the levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol in your body and can keep them in a healthy balance. You should also limit your alcohol intake and avoid or quit smoking.
Eating a healthy diet full of fiber and unsaturated fats can also make a big difference. It’s important to limit your intake of trans and saturated fats to avoid excess LDL cholesterol production.
Doing these things throughout your life can help prevent high cholesterol from becoming a problem. However, even if you have developed high cholesterol, making healthy lifestyle choices is a critical component of your treatment plan. If you do have high cholesterol and your doctor believes that fast management is the safest option for you, they may prescribe medications called statins that will help lower your LDL cholesterol.
One important thing to remember is that high cholesterol doesn’t show symptoms. The only way to know what your cholesterol levels are is to have your blood checked by a medical professional. Plaque buildup can begin in childhood, so it is recommended that adults over 20 have their cholesterol checked by a doctor approximately every five years.
Only then will you know what you need to do to mitigate your health risks. By combining these tactics with other heart-healthy tips, you can more easily steer clear of coronary heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.