Most of us know that high cholesterol is bad for our health, but the details of how it works and what to do about it are a little fuzzy. That’s why we’ve put together this blog post to clear up some misconceptions about cholesterol and explain what gives you high cholesterol.
The answer largely stems from our diet and lifestyle choices. So read on to learn everything you need to know about how cholesterol affects your health and what you can do to lower your risk of developing high cholesterol.
What is Cholesterol?
The topic of cholesterol is one that is both interesting and complex. For most people, knowing what cholesterol is and how it works is enough to keep them healthy. However, for people with high cholesterol levels, understanding the factors that contribute to those levels can be critical to preventing health problems down the line.
Cholesterol is a type of lipid found in the blood. The body uses cholesterol to make hormones, build cell membranes, and carry fats and other substances around in the blood. It’s also needed for the proper function of the heart, brain, and other organs.
There are two main types of cholesterol, each with its own function in the body.
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or bad cholesterol, aka plaque builder, is responsible for carrying cholesterol around your body. It’s mostly found in the arteries, and when it builds up, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, and even high blood pressure.
HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or good cholesterol, helps remove LDL from your arteries and reduces your risk of heart disease.
What Gives You High Cholesterol?
Many factors can contribute to your high cholesterol, but the root cause is typically a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors. Some medications and medical conditions may also play a role.
Some of the most common causes of high cholesterol include:
1. Red meat
Eating too much red meat is one of the biggest contributors to high cholesterol. This is because it’s high in cholesterol as well as saturated fat, which increases cholesterol production in the body.
According to the American Heart Association, saturated fat should make up no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total calories.
A large study published in the journal Circulation found that people who ate more than three servings of red meat a week had a 33% increased risk of developing high cholesterol.
Another study published in the British Medical Journal found that people who eat more than 4.5 ounces (120 grams) of red meat per day have a 53% increased risk of developing heart disease. This study also found that substituting it with other protein sources can reduce this risk.
2. Processed meat
There are many different types of processed meats, but all of them contain unhealthy fats and chemicals that can raise your cholesterol levels.
Processed meats include hot dogs, bacon, ham, sausages, salami, bologna, pastrami, and even pepperoni.
3. Fried foods
One study found that people who ate the most fried foods had significantly higher concentrations of bad cholesterol (LDL) than those who ate the least.
Fried foods contain large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol, which can lead to increased LDL levels in the blood. In fact, research shows that eating even just one portion of fried food daily can increase LDL levels by up to 10 percent!
4. Dairy products
A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that dairy products can raise cholesterol levels. The study used a randomized crossover design to compare the effects of consuming dairy products on blood cholesterol levels.
The participants were divided into two groups. One group was given a dairy product diet, while the other group was given a control diet. The results showed that the dairy product diet led to an increase in total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
This is because dairy products are high in saturated fat, which can increase LDL cholesterol levels. Dairy products also contain lactose, a sugar molecule that can cause inflammation, which can cause the body to produce more bad cholesterol.
It is well-known that smoking increases the risk of heart disease, and this is especially due to the fact that it can increase cholesterol.
In fact, research shows that smokers have a higher incidence of high cholesterol than nonsmokers. One reason for this is that cigarettes contain chemicals that can increase the production of bad cholesterol in the body.
This is because the chemicals in cigarettes cause inflammation in the arterial lining, creating some “holes.” To repair the damage, LDL cholesterol is released to fill the holes. But with continued smoking, there will be more inflammation with increased arterial damage and LDL deposits, eventually forming a plaque.
To make matters worse, smoking suppresses the production of HDL cholesterol, which could otherwise offset the effects of LDL. So the condition gets worse.
If you smoke and have high cholesterol, quitting smoking can help reduce your risk for heart disease and other health problems.
Studies have shown that people with a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol are more likely to have the condition. This is common in conditions like familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder that causes high cholesterol levels in the blood.
The cause of the disorder is not known, but it is thought to be caused by a defect in how the body recycles LDL cholesterol.
People with familial hypercholesterolemia have a much higher chance of developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease than people who do not have the disorder.
This condition may also cause cholesterol deposits in various parts of the body including the eyes and joints.
Common signs include:
- Lumps around your knuckles, knees, or elbows
- Yellowish areas around the eyes
- Painful or swollen Achilles tendon
- Family history of early heart diseases and heart attacks
- White arc near the cornea (the colored part of the eye)
7. Physical inactivity
Lack of exercise has been linked to increased LDL cholesterol levels in the blood.
This is because lack of exercise leads to increased body fat and triglyceride levels. These compounds are responsible for raising cholesterol levels in the blood.
On the other hand, exercise has been shown to improve your HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. The high HDL helps clear LDL from the blood, thus improving overall cholesterol levels.
One study found that exercise can increase HDL by 20 % and lower LDL cholesterol by 15%.
The benefits of raising HDL-cholesterol levels are not limited to people with high LDL cholesterol levels. Even people with normal cholesterol levels can benefit from regular exercise because it can help prevent various conditions, including heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week. This can be achieved through things like brisk walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, and playing tennis.
8. Some medications
Certain medications like beta blockers, prednisone, amiodarone, cyclosporine, anabolic steroids, and diuretics can increase the production of cholesterol and other lipids in the body.
That’s why some people on prolonged use of these medications may experience a raised cholesterol level even with a healthy diet and lifestyle in general.
If you must be on these medications, it’s good to have your cholesterol closely monitored.
How is High Cholesterol Diagnosed?
A doctor typically diagnoses high cholesterol after a person has been evaluated for symptoms, such as an increase in shortness of breath, fatigue, heartburn, or chest pain.
The doctor may also ask about your diet and lifestyle habits. If you have risk factors for heart disease, such as being overweight or having a family history of heart disease. In that case, your doctor may recommend checking your blood pressure, waist circumference, and total lipid profile.
- A cholesterol level of 240 mg/dL (6.22 mmol/L) or greater is considered high.
- A total cholesterol level of 200 to 239 mg/dL (5.17 to 6.18 mmol/L) is borderline high
- A total cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL (5.17 mmol/L) is normal.
The American Heart Association recommends that people with a total cholesterol level over 240 mg/dL should see their doctor for further evaluation and possibly treatment. The doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as reducing your intake of saturated fats and cholesterol-rich foods, and using statins to lower your LDL cholesterol levels.
Those with total cholesterol levels between 201 and 239 mg/dL may safely reduce their cholesterol without medication through lifestyle changes like losing weight, eating healthy, eliminating processed foods and those rich in saturated fats, avoiding smoking, and effectively managing their stress levels.
How to Lower Your Cholesterol
Embrace a healthy diet
There are a few simple steps you can take to lower your cholesterol, and they all begin with eating a balanced diet.
Make sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, as these contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber that can help improve your cholesterol levels.
You should also avoid foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Additionally, include healthy fats like olive oil in your diet, and limit your intake of processed foods and sugary drinks.
Taking advantage of aerobic exercises like walking or biking can help reduce bad cholesterol levels while increasing good cholesterol levels. Strength training can also increase good cholesterol levels, so incorporate both into your routine.
Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the world. It is estimated that smoking causes over 1 million deaths each year, making it the leading cause of preventable death globally.
In fact, the World Health Organization states that “Tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.”
Studies have also shown that smoking increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and numerous other illnesses.
One way that smoking increases the risk of heart disease is the fact that it increases cholesterol. However, studies show that when smokers quit, their cholesterol levels usually improve.
According to the American Heart Association, people who stop smoking will see a decrease in their total cholesterol levels and an increase in their HDL (good) cholesterol levels than those who continue to do so.
Stress is a common cause of high cholesterol levels in the body. A study published in the journal Hypertension found that people who experience high levels of stress have worse cholesterol profiles than those who don’t.
The study looked at a group of 58 participants, half of whom were randomly assigned to a stress management program and the other half to a control group.
The results showed that people in the stress management group had lower total cholesterol levels and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels than those in the control group.
Reducing your overall level of stress can help improve your cholesterol profile. There are several ways to reduce stress: exercise, meditation, relaxation techniques, eating well, getting enough sleep, and having positive relationships with others can all help you achieve your goal.
Research shows people who lose weight often see their cholesterol levels decrease. One study found that people who lost more than 10% of their body weight had reductions in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels with increased HDL (good) cholesterol.
This suggests that losing weight can improve your general health and positively affect your cardiovascular health.
With that in mind, the initial phases of weight loss may cause a transient rise in blood cholesterol. This is because as you lose weight, you’ll be mobilizing your stored fat, so the cholesterol in these fatty tissues will be released into the bloodstream, thus causing the rise.
However, this is not permanent; as your weight stabilizes, the cholesterol levels will be normalized.
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If you’re concerned about your high cholesterol levels, it’s important to understand the many causes of high cholesterol.
Some of the most common causes include: eating too much saturated fat, physical inactivity, too much stress, smoking, genetics, some medications, and being overweight or obese.
If you think any of these factors could be contributing to your high cholesterol levels, it’s important to make the necessary changes to ensure your numbers come down and that you’re not at risk of any associated health conditions.
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