Cholesterol is a kind of fat that can be found all throughout nature. It’s produced naturally by your body and comes from the foods that you eat. Your body produces cholesterol in order to maintain the health of cell membranes; healthy levels help with the synthesis of hormones, bile, and vitamins during digestion. Cholesterol travels through your blood to provide energy to the muscles while unused cholesterol is either filtered out through the liver or deposited in the heart.
Excess cholesterol cannot be filtered by the liver, causing it to be redeposited in the arteries of the heart and affecting overall health. The plaque responsible for coronary heart disease is made up of cholesterol along with calcium and other fats. Although this process is slow, it is still very dangerous. Imagine your heart as a vacuum, with cholesterol as dirt: too much dirt can clog the intake, making the vacuum harder and harder to use, until the clog becomes so large the vacuum stops working completely.
The same is true with your heart. High cholesterol makes the passages of your arteries narrow, causing blood flow to vital organs to be increasingly difficult. Those with extremely high cholesterol could even have a stroke or a heart attack.
Types of High Cholesterol
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol) is known as “bad cholesterol” because it contains only a small amount of protein while the rest is made of fat. High levels of LDL contribute to plaque buildup in the heart, increasing your risk for heart attack and stroke.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol) is known as “good cholesterol” because it binds with fat and waste in the bloodstream to be easily filtered out by the liver. A high HDL level is good, because it means you have a lower risk of heart disease.
- Triglycerides are excess fats that are stored by the body, left over after it burns all the calories it needs. A high level of triglycerides can also lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, as well as heart disease or pancreatitis.
Risk Factors and Causes
Your lifestyle has a lot to do with cholesterol levels, particularly diet and exercise. Cholesterol, trans fat, and saturated fat are all known to cause high cholesterol. Saturated fats and cholesterols can be found in food that is produced by animals, such as meats, cheeses, eggs, and other dairy products. Trans fats can be found in unhealthy snack foods like cookies, cakes, chips, and crackers.
A lack of exercise also contributes to high cholesterol. Exercise boosts your circulatory system and keeps your heart functioning at its peak. If you’re not exercising, you are preventing your body from ridding itself of excess cholesterol. Obesity is a significant risk factor for a number of severe diseases, including coronary heart disease. Other causes and contributing factors can be family history and other diseases such as hyperthyroidism.
High cholesterol is often diagnosed either through tests or found when treating another health problem. Often, a person does not find out they have high blood pressure until they get tested for it. Many are diagnosed during their yearly physical therefore it is important to remember to a checkup every year.
Doctors screen for high cholesterol using a simple blood test. You can only be diagnosed with high cholesterol through one of three tests:
- Direct LDL: This test only measures your LDL, usually to assess your risk for heart disease or measure the progress of lifestyle changes. Often used as a part of any regular blood screening.
- Simple Cholesterol: This test measures your HDL and total cholesterol which is recommended as a part of any yearly physical exam (including children). This is especially true if you display any risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, obesity, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, etc.
- Fasting Cholesterol: This test measures all levels of your cholesterol, including triglycerides. Unlike other tests, you cannot eat for up to 14 hours prior to this test.
The prognosis of high cholesterol varies by person and situation. Generally speaking, prognosis is usually poor unless significant lifestyle changes are made. Your doctor may recommend medication though diet and exercise are essential. Without these changes, high cholesterol will eventually create severe arterial blockage, and surgery eventually becomes the only option.
There are several ways to improve your prognosis of high cholesterol. The most important one is your diet. You need to consume a healthy amount of vegetables and fruit as well as nuts, grains, beans, and seeds. Olive oil can also help to reduce your high cholesterol when used as replacement for butter, vegetable oil, or margarine. You don’t have to cut meat or dairy out of your diet completely (unless indicated by a doctor).
Red meat, pork, shortening, cream, cheese, and butter are all common fatty foods in the American diet. Try switching to low fat milk and cheese while supplementing smaller meat portions with large vegetable portions; make sure to include one fruit serving per meal. You may also have to limit the amount of alcohol that you consume to one or two drinks per week. A daily glass of red wine is sometimes suggested; however those with high blood pressure or stronger drinking tendencies should avoid this recommendation.
As soon as you are able, you should try some exercise, perhaps starting with a quick 10 minute walk. Although it is recommended to exercise 3-5 times a week, some exercises may not be safe depending on your condition. Consult with your doctor first if you have any heart conditions or you experience chest pain when exercising. Any medications prescribed by your doctor should be taken as directed. Some medication can reduce your LDL level by over 50%.
Recently people have become more conscious of the heart healthy lifestyle. Many gyms and community centers offer exercise programs and support groups for those struggling with heart health. Additionally many companies have begun to label foods that contain these dangerous ingredients and many others offer heart healthy alternatives. Make sure to consult the nutritional facts, keep an eye out for total fat, trans fat, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium.
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