How Much Do You Know About Cholesterol?
“I’m watching my cholesterol!” It’s a common saying that you have likely heard before. It’s so common because, as the CDC reports, around 38% of American adults have higher levels of cholesterol than they should. Though most people know of cholesterol, few actually know what it really is and the incredibly important role it plays in the body. Do you have ‘good’ cholesterol levels…or ‘bad’?
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-like waxy substance that is found in all of our cells. The liver actually produces all the cholesterol that our body needs, but it can also come from dietary cholesterol, or cholesterol we consume from our food. Dietary cholesterol is most abundantly found in animal based food, like meat and dairy products. So what does cholesterol do? For starters, it helps us produce the stomach acids that we need to break down and digest food. It’s also needed for our bodies to be able to produce hormones and vitamin D, both very important players in our bodies. Cholesterol also acts on a cellular level, contributing to the structure of cell walls.
Though cholesterol is very necessary, it also disproves the saying “you can’t have too much of a good thing.” Too much excess cholesterol can lead to the formation of plaque, which can build up along the walls of your arteries. If too much plaque builds up, the deposit can burst, causing blood to begin clotting against the buildup of plaque. Once the clot becomes large enough, it can either partially or totally block the artery, restricting the supply of oxygen-infused blood flowing towards the heart. When this happens it can cause chest pain, and it significantly increases the risk of a heart attack. The same thing can happen in other areas of the body as well, including the brain and the limbs. A bad enough blockage in the limbs can even lead to amputation, this occurs most commonly in the legs or feet. In the brain, the clotting of blood can trigger a stroke.
“Good” and “Bad”
A common topic that comes up when talking about cholesterol is “good” and “bad” cholesterol. While these designations are indeed true, they don’t tell the full story behind what they mean. What we call good cholesterol is actually High-density lipoprotein, or HDL. We call it good because it takes the excess cholesterol that’s in the body and transports it back to the liver, which can safely dispose of it. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, also transports cholesterol, but instead of taking it back to the liver, it causes the excess cholesterol to build up in the arteries. Basically, LDL is the person that leaves their shopping cart in a parking spot, while HDL is the person that responsibly returns their cart to the cart coral. VLDL, or very low-density lipoprotein is another form that is considered bad, it mostly transports triglycerides instead of cholesterol, but like LDL, it contributes to plaque buildup.
Causes and Risk Factors
There are several possible causes of High Cholesterol, and if you have read our past entries, some of them are going to sound familiar. Lifestyle is a big factor when it comes to cholesterol. A diet with a high intake of unhealthy fats, like trans fats and saturated fats, significantly raises LDL levels, and lack of physical activity will lower HDL levels. Smoking is able to cause both LDL levels to rise and HDL levels to fall, while also damaging the blood vessels and making it more likely that fatty deposits will gather in them. Unsurprisingly, being overweight or obese is not only linked to these causes, but it too makes one more susceptible to high cholesterol.
All of these factors also increase the risk of diabetes, which also is able to affect cholesterol levels. Diabetes usually means very high levels of VLDL, high triglycerides, lower HDL, and even elevated LDL. It will also damage the arteries and other blood vessels. This creates a prime situation for the buildup of plaque, and with the combination of high cholesterol and diabetes, there is a much greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
As with most chronic conditions, high cholesterol has risk factors that are often out of our control. Age is one of the most prominent, though younger people are not immune to high cholesterol, we become more at risk as we get older. This is because the liver isn’t able to remove bad cholesterol from the body as efficiently as we get older. Family history is another important risk factor. Not only do families often share lifestyles and habits that increase the risk of chronic conditions, genetics play a part as well, and risk can be passed down to younger generations. Other factors include race and ethnicity, medications, and medical conditions such as liver or kidney disease, pregnancy, and hypothyroidism (under active thyroid).
Diagnosis and Treatment
High cholesterol on its own has no symptoms, and that’s a problem because of the health risks it’s associated with. The only way to know for sure where your cholesterol levels are at before it lets you know in a potentially lethal way is by getting your blood tested. The American Heart Association recommends that this occur at least every 4-6 for those over 20 years old, and more frequently as you age or if you carry any risk factors for cholesterol or heart disease. Treatment may require that you take medication to help you control your cholesterol levels if necessary, but it will always require that you make lifestyle changes. These changes include eliminating unhealthy habits like smoking, getting more physical activity, managing your weight and stress, and sticking to a heart conscience diet.
The best treatment is prevention, especially when it comes to a disease that doesn’t have symptoms. Comprehensive blood testing includes measuring cholesterol, and since blood measurement is recommended for preventing high cholesterol, you might as well get everything else checked at the same time. It will not only help you control your risk factors for high cholesterol, but for other chronic conditions as well. You might even find that you have a very healthy cholesterol level, but maybe something else like your insulin is high, which is a sign that you could be trending towards diabetes, which is closely linked to high cholesterol.
This full picture of your health is the benefit that Ways2Well provides. A regular check of your cholesterol in this situation would have made it seem like things were perfectly fine, when another risk factor that doesn’t seem immediately related slips in the back window. Once you have a full picture of your health, we are able to help you devise the best treatment and plan for yourself, one that takes into account the entire picture, and not just one small part of it. Not only can it help you live longer, you will live without the fear that something like high cholesterol is silently working against your health and your life.
September is National Cholesterol Education Month. This is an excellent time to assess your health, your risk factors, to educate yourself about cholesterol, and take steps towards preventing high cholesterol or addressing the problem if you have it.
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Check out our Getting Started page and set up a free consult with our medical provider. It’s time to get you on the path to great health and keep you that way.