Cholesterol: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As the holidays approach, it is especially important to be educated about cholesterol. This wax-like substance has the biggest effect on your heart and as we’ve all learned from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, your heart plays a big role during the holidays.
Not all cholesterol is good and not all cholesterol is bad. It’s possible you’ve mostly associated cholesterol with the term “high cholesterol,” which is probably something either you or someone you know has experienced. While high cholesterol is bad, it is treatable with medications and/or lifestyle changes. Most importantly it is also preventable. In some rare cases it is genetic, but that also can be managed as long as you are aware and working with a doctor.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a necessary substance for your body to digest food and produce hormones and vitamin D. Your body (mostly your liver) makes all of the cholesterol that you will ever need, but unfortunately cholesterol is also found in food.
Cholesterol is mostly found in animal-sourced food, such as meat and dairy products, since their bodies also produce cholesterol. But when you consume food with saturated fat or trans-fat your liver will produce more cholesterol on its own. Take a look at any processed food label, you’ll most likely see some sort of measurement of saturated fat or trans-fat.
Cholesterol is carried through your body by lipoproteins. Lipoproteins consist of a fat interior and a protein exterior. When it comes to lipoproteins there are two kinds: LDL and HDL.
Higher levels of HDL lipoproteins in the body is referred to as “good cholesterol.” HDL cruises through the bloodstream picking up its other (less helpful) lipoprotein counterparts and drops them off at the liver, where they’re usually processed and removed from the body. Having high levels of HDL, or “good cholesterol,” reduces the risk for heart disease.
So how do you increase HDL? Exercise is always an excellent option. Any cardio exercise that raises your heart rate is HDL approved. Even a brisk 30-minute walk three to four times a week will improve or maintain your heart health.
Another great option would be to improve your diet. Eat fruit, veggies, whole grains, and low-fat proteins in moderation. Portion size is very important when it comes to heart health. Also, consume as little sodium, saturated fats, and trans-fats as possible. Read labels!
If you’re a smoker, you can quit smoking to increase your HDL. We understand that it’s more difficult than it sounds, but if you have high blood pressure this isn’t something you want to mess with. Medication is not a guarantee to avoid heart disease or heart attacks. In fact, there never is a guarantee, but a healthy lifestyle is your best bet. Another helpful practice is supplementation designed specifically for heart health. Do your research to discover which nutrients positively affect heart health, and look for whole foods or high-quality supplements that contain these nutrients.
Lower levels of HDL or higher levels of LDL is considered “bad cholesterol.” Higher levels of LDL lipoproteins without enough HDL lipoproteins in the bloodstream leads to cholesterol building up in your arteries. This means that there isn’t enough HDL to pick up their LDL buddies and take them to the liver, they just start hanging out around the artery walls. Talk about loitering!
Common metabolic syndromes that lead to lower HDL levels are high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity. You can see why a lifestyle including cardio and a healthy diet are important. If your diet consists of lots of high-fat proteins and processed foods with higher levels of saturated fats and trans-fats then your LDL levels increase and there’s a good chance that plaque is building up without your knowledge.
We won’t try to sugar-coat it, it’s not pretty. Unmanaged levels of LDL can lead to atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, angina, heart attack, carotid artery disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. What exactly are all of these scary-sounding conditions?
Atherosclerosis is the technical term for the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Coronary heart disease is the buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. Plaque hardens as time goes on and can break apart and build upon itself, causing blood clots. If a blood clot becomes large enough, it blocks the flow of blood to the heart. Angina is a condition caused by a blood clot in the coronary artery that usually appears in the form of chest pain or pressure, which can be mistaken for indigestion. Jaw, neck, shoulder, arm, or back pain can also indicate angina.
If treatment doesn’t occur to remove the blood clot causing angina, then the lack of blood to the heart will lead to a heart attack. During a heart attack, sections of the heart muscle begin to die unless blood flow is restored quickly. A heart attack must be treated quickly or it will lead to permanent damage, even death.
Carotid artery disease is where plaque builds up in the carotid arteries on your neck and can lead to a stroke if there isn’t sufficient blood flow to the brain. Peripheral artery disease is when plaque builds up in the arteries carrying blood to limbs, organ, and the head. This disease most commonly affects the legs and can cause pain, numbness, and infection. Smoking is the biggest risk factor for peripheral artery disease.
Prevention is the best method for avoiding “ugly cholesterol.” If HDL levels are high and LDL levels are low, then the chances of plaque build-up are minimized and the diseases listed above become non-threats.
Your cholesterol levels should never be ignored. Hopefully each year you’re having a medical exam completed and your doctor checks your cholesterol. If you already practice healthy eating, supplementation, and cardio exercise, then you shouldn’t have to worry. If you’re not already practicing those good habits, then start transitioning immediately. Diseases related to cholesterol are avoidable so don’t make your doctor address high blood pressure or high cholesterol with you during a future visit.
Disclaimer: This article should not be misconstrued as medical advice.