How much do you know about your cholesterol?
We hear a lot of talk about cholesterol—it’s either too high or too low. But what does that actually mean? And better yet—what is cholesterol anyway?
If you’ve ever asked those questions, don’t feel bad. Cholesterol isn’t the easiest concept to grasp, but understanding it can help keep you healthy through the stages of your life. Let’s take a deeper dive into cholesterol and talk about how it affects your health.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in your blood that your body uses to build cells. Your liver produces all the cholesterol you need, but cholesterol can also come from the foods you eat. This is called dietary cholesterol, and it comes from eating animal-derived products like meat, poultry and full-fat dairy items.
But those foods tend to be high in saturated and trans fats, which trigger your liver to make more cholesterol than it needs to. That extra production can lead to unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Why does your cholesterol matter?
As your cholesterol levels rise, so do the risks posed to your health. Excess cholesterol can build up and join with other substances in your blood to form thick, hard deposits along the inner walls of your arteries. This causes a condition called atherosclerosis, which is when your arteries become hard and narrow.
When this happens, a blood clot can develop within a narrowed artery leading to your heart and brain. This can result in a heart attack or stroke.
What’s the difference between good and bad cholesterol?
Did you know there’s more than one kind of cholesterol? The simple explanation is that there’s a good and a bad kind, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
When doctors are testing your cholesterol levels, they look at these three factors:
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol. When levels of this type of cholesterol are high, fatty deposits can build in your arteries and could cause a blockage.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol. High levels of HDL lower your risk of heart disease and stroke by clearing some of the cholesterol from your arteries.
Triglycerides. There’s another type of fat in your blood called triglycerides. This type of fat, when combined with high bad cholesterol or low good cholesterol, can harden the arteries if levels of it get too high.
What you can do
It all starts with a cholesterol test. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone ages 20 and up have their cholesterol levels tested, which is done with a simple blood draw.
A cholesterol test early on is important because it allows you to work with your doctor to make certain lifestyle changes to improve your numbers. These healthy habits will help you do so and reduce your chances of a heart attack or stroke:
- Eat healthy. Reduce saturated and trans fats in your diet by limiting the amount of red meat, fried foods and full-fat dairy products you eat. Replace these foods with heart-healthy ones like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. Baked goods are another red flag. They often contain palm, palm kernel and coconut oils, which all can cause your liver to produce more cholesterol.
- Be active. Sitting too much can lower your good cholesterol. But if you exercise at a moderate or vigorous intensity for 40 minutes three or four times a week, you can improve your cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Lose weight. Carrying too much weight can make your bad cholesterol levels go up and your good cholesterol levels go down. You’re on the right track for weight loss if you’re working to lower your cholesterol through diet. Aim to lose just 10 percent of your body weight for healthier cholesterol number.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking lowers your good cholesterol and increases your risk for heart disease. If you smoke, quitting will help put you on the right track for lowering both.
Healthy cholesterol is an important part of wellness. So is a healthy blood pressure. Read about the new blood pressure guidelines for a healthy heart to learn if yours is measuring up.
Source: American Heart Association