Understanding and Managing your Cholesterol
Cholesterol is essential for many of the body’s metabolic processes, including hormone and bile production, and to help the body use vitamin D. But, unmanaged levels of bad cholesterol can lead to clogged arteries and dramatically increase the odds of having a heart attack or stroke.
In fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death for men and women in the United States. More than a million Americans have heart attacks every year and about a half million people die from heart disease. Yet, most people don’t understand what cholesterol is, that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, and how to stay on the right track.
Cholesterol simplified. Cholesterol is produced by the liver and also made by most cells in the body. It is carried around in the blood by little ‘couriers’ called lipoproteins. We need blood cholesterol because the body uses it to:
• Build the structure of cell membranes
• Make hormones like estrogen, testosterone and adrenaline
• Help your metabolism work efficiently; for example, cholesterol is essential for your body to produce vitamin D
• Produce bile acids, which help the body digest fat and absorb important nutrients.
Types of cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol :
1. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – called the ‘bad’ cholesterol because it goes into the bloodstream and clogs up your arteries.
2. High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – called the ‘good’ cholesterol because it helps to take the ‘bad’ cholesterol out of the bloodstream.
How Does Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease?
When there is too much cholesterol (a fat-like substance) in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries. Over time, this buildup causes ‘hardening of the arteries’ so that arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart is slowed down or blocked. The blood carries oxygen to the heart, and if enough blood and oxygen cannot reach your heart, you may suffer chest pain. If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by a blockage, the result is a heart attack.
What Do Your Cholesterol Numbers Mean?
Everyone age 20 and older should have their cholesterol measured at least once every 5 years. It is best to have a blood test called a Cholesterol Check Panel to find out your cholesterol numbers. This blood test is done after a 9- to 12-hour fast and gives information about your:
• Total cholesterol. Less than 200 mg/d L is best.
• LDL (bad) cholesterol – the main source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries. LDL should be less than 100 mg/dL .
• HDL (good) cholesterol – helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries. HDL should be more than 40 mg/dL .
• Triglycerides – another form of fat in your blood
Diet tips to help reduce your cholesterol. The most important thing you can do to reduce your cholesterol level is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You should try to:
• Limit the amount of cholesterol – rich foods you eat.
• Increase the amount and variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods you have each day.
• Choose low or reduced fat milk, yogurt and other dairy products or have ‘added calcium’ soy drinks.
• Choose lean meat (meat trimmed of fat or labeled as ‘heart smart’).
• Limit fatty meats, including sausages and salami, and choose leaner sandwich meats like turkey breast or cooked lean chicken.
• Have fish (fresh or canned) at least twice a week.
• Replace butter and dairy blends with polyunsaturated margarines.
• Include foods in your diet that are rich in soluble fibre and healthy fats, such as nuts, legumes and seeds.
• Limit cheese and ice cream to twice a week.
• Consider a supplement to regulate cholesterol.
Medication can help. For some people diet and lifestyle changes are not enough. High blood cholesterol levels are also linked to genetics. Some people inherit altered genes that cause high cholesterol, and this can usually not be changed by lifestyle or diet.
If you are at risk of coronary heart disease and your LDL cholesterol level doesn’t drop after scrupulous attention to diet, you should consider a supplement designed to reduce bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol (Lipid-X). However, diet and exercise will still be important, even if you are taking medication.