Cholesterol is considered a building block for all tissues, as it’s needed to build cell membranes, create hormones, process vitamin D, and make bile, which helps break down dietary fats. We all need cholesterol for many cellular functions but left unchecked it can build up in arteries causing excess strain on the heart and blood vessels. High cholesterol, also known as hyperlipidemia, is linked to heart disease, stroke, and other health complications. Many factors affect cholesterol levels, but recent studies suggest our dietary influences may not be as high on the list as we once thought. Since the liver makes cholesterol it can still be producing high levels despite your dietary changes. Therefore, we must look into all factors that influence cholesterol levels.
These pictures are from two separate blood draws, one showing a normal sample before putting it through the machine and showing it right after blood components were separated. A person with normal cholesterol levels will have a well-defined separation of blood and plasma (clear-ish).
Compared to a person who has high cholesterol shown by the heavy thick yellow-white plaque that separated from the rest of the blood. It’s likely that this person had a very fatty meal like fast food before the time of the blood draw.
Types of Cholesterol
Total Cholesterol- This is a ballpark of your cholesterol levels as it’s calculated by adding HDL + LDL + 20% of Triglycerides. Looking at the other values individually will give you a better picture, as not all cholesterol is bad for your health
- HDL- “Good Cholesterol”
You want high levels of HDL as this type of cholesterol protects the heart by bringing other cholesterol circulating in the blood back to the liver for excretion. High levels of HDL are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke
- LDL-“Bad Cholesterol”
Think of these as sticky molecules floating in the blood waiting for an open break in the vessel membrane so they can collect in the pocket and build up. Increased blood pressure and strain on the heart increase risk for heart disease and stroke
- Triglycerides– Big fatty molecules that can block the flow of blood through vessels and build up in organs. Primarily from dietary choices as it’s associated with fried/fast food and heavy alcohol consumption, but can also be affected by other chronic diseases, genetics, sedentary lifestyle, and mediations.
5 Ways to Improve Cholesterol
1. Diet: It’s not fair to say that only eating bad ruins your health because I believe it’s more of a balance that we aren’t eating enough healthy nutritious foods to satisfy our bodies. Eating too much pizza and fries impacts our health, but so does skipping out on fruits and vegetables. We must focus on increasing healthy foods just as much as we focus on limiting bad foods.
- One of the best ways to lower cholesterol levels is to focus on increasing your HDL levels to rid the body of excess bad cholesterol. Higher HDL levels protect your heart and come from foods high in unsaturated fats, but more specifically, omega-3 fatty acids. Eat more nuts, olive oil, nut butter, avocado, olives, and fatty fish (salmon, tuna).
- Increase soluble fiber as it binds to cholesterol in the intestine and excretes it from the body which reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed through the bloodstream. High Fiber foods are beans/lentils/legumes, avocado, green veggies, whole fruits like apples, and whole grains. You can also take a supplement to be sure you’re reaching your daily fiber goal.
- Limit processed foods and high sugar intake. Excess sugar is processed into LDL “bad” cholesterol by the liver. Read more about sugar and your health by clicking here: The Carbohydrate Controversy.
- Reduce saturated and trans fats that are often found in red meats, fast food, fried foods, and bakery goods. Vegetable oil with added hydrogen makes trans fats, therefore any partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are very harmful to our health, so much so that the FDA recently banned the use of these oils in all foods made in U.S. and distributed throughout restaurants and grocery stores.
“Removing PHOs [partially hydrogenated Oils], the FDA notes, “could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.” Trans fats are widely known to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels and increase an individual’s risk of developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes” (Subrata, 2018).
2. Exercise: Exercise can actually increase HDL levels to protect your heart. Routine exercise, 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity can reduce your cholesterol levels by pulling excess cholesterol circulating in the blood back to the liver to be made into bile for fat digestion or sent to the gut for excretion. Therefore, the more you move, the more cholesterol is removed from your arteries. Routine exercise also helps support a healthy weight and mind, which overall, helps balance cholesterol levels.
3. Avoid Smoking, Limit Alcohol Intake: Nicotine actually causes injury to the blood vessels and disrupts the protective barrier, allowing cholesterol to build up within the vessel wall. Over time this can lead to atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease, which are major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Nicotine also constricts blood vessels and makes them stiffer over chronic use. Blood pressure increases as well as heart rate. So while smoking may be relaxing for many, it’s actually very straining to your heart. Quitting nicotine use is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
Alcohol is converted into cholesterol and triglycerides by the liver. Heavy alcohol consumption is associated with higher triglycerides and blood pressure. When there are too many triglycerides in the blood, they become clogged in the liver leading to fatty liver disease. When the liver doesn’t work as well due to fatty liver disease, it’s unable to remove excess cholesterol from the body and cholesterol levels continue to rise. Limiting alcohol consumption can improve your cholesterol levels and drastically reduce your risk for related health complications.
4. Vitamins: Some vitamins like Fish Oil, CoQ10, Red Yeast Rice, and Psyllium can help reduce cholesterol levels. Omega-3 Fatty Acids can reduce triglycerides and improve overall cholesterol levels. Red Yeast Rice is thought to help block the liver from making new cholesterol. Psyllium works by holding bile and cholesterol in the gut until they can be excreted from the body.
5. Rx: Sometimes genetics just can’t be fought with lifestyle changes. If you’ve tried ‘everything’ and your cholesterol levels are still high, it might be time to consider prescription medication. Discuss with your healthcare provider how to get your cholesterol checked and create a plan that you can work towards to improve your heart health.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and cholesterol plays a major role in the development of heart disease, therefore we should focus on methods that can improve cholesterol levels starting at any age. High cholesterol also has no symptoms so the only way you can really know what’s going on inside your vessels is to get them checked through a simple blood test. Talk to your PCP about your cholesterol levels today!
Want to know more about cholesterol? Click here: 5 Foods to Improve Your Cholesterol
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.