According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) heart disease is the number one leading cause of death in the U.S. More than one million Americans have a heart attack each year and about 500,000 die of heart disease. A major risk factor for heart disease is high blood cholesterol which plays a big role in heart attack and stroke. So, what is cholesterol? How does it get into our bodies? Is it good or bad for us? There is a plethora of confusing, contradictory, and sometimes misleading information regarding the good, bad and the in-the-middles on cholesterol. Understandably, this flood of information makes getting on top of the cholesterol dos and don’ts extremely difficult for those of us who just want to take the guessing out of heart-healthy eating.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in your blood that is typically made within the liver or ingested through food. Cholesterol is an important part of good health as it is used to perform important jobs, such as making hormones and digesting fatty foods. Typically, the liver makes most if not all of the cholesterol your body needs which is why experts recommend that people eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.
The liver produces around 80% of the total cholesterol that is usually found within the body which leaves about 20% coming from food intake. The liver packages the cholesterol along with other lipids into minuscule protein-covered particles called lipoproteins that then flows throughout the body. Cholesterol then flows throughout the body in several different forms, however of these low-density lipoprotein - LDL - is what is often called “bad” cholesterol.
The Good and the Bad on Cholesterol
LDL cholesterol can contribute to the formation of plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis). However, it should be noted that LDL also makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol raise your risk for heart disease and stroke because an excess of LDL cholesterol in the blood stream can build up on the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup is called “plaque”. As blood vessels accumulate plaque over time, the insides of the vessels narrow thus blocking the flow to and from your heart and other organs.
On the other hand, High-Density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol is known as the “good” cholesterol because it can help to remove other forms of cholesterol from the blood stream. This is done when HDL “picks up” excess cholesterol from the blood and takes it back to the liver where it’s then broken down and removed from the body.
Further, not all HDL is made the same. Research shows that there are different types of HDL that do more than just cleanse the body of excess cholesterol. Some types of HDL work to prevent LDL from damaging or clinging to artery walls as well as ease inflammation in artery walls and prevent blood clots from forming inside arteries. These various types of HDL is why physicians will track especially when a person has low or high HDL in their blood.
What causes low HDL cholesterol?
So, if the body produces all the cholesterol it needs, you might be wondering — if the body is so effective on its own why doesn’t it just produce more HDL cholesterol? Or, how can there increasing and decreasing levels of HDL cholesterol? There are a number of reasons why some people have low HDL and others have high HDL. Genetics seemingly play the biggest part by determining how much HDL cholesterol your body makes and the proportion of different subtypes. This, of course, is not something anyone can truly control. However, certain lifestyle choices affect HDL levels such as smoking, excess weight, and lack of physical activity which tend to lower your HDL levels.
Increasing HDL and Lowering LDL
You may have already guessed that the only clear solution to increasing the good and lowering the bad on cholesterol is through living a healthier lifestyle. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we here at StayWell will continue to drive home the importance of eating right, exercising, and ending bad habits like smoking and drinking, because truly these are the solutions to a number of life-threatening disease and conditions. However, it’s important to note that you are not alone and should you ever find yourself struggling to make the positive changes in your life, consider talking to your doctor to identify effective pathways toward a healthier future.
It is also important to remember that living a healthy lifestyle is both a physical and mental task that may require a comprehensive approach. This is why there is all the more need to Involve your doctor to get your lifestyle choices— and hopefully your cholesterol levels— under control. Addressing your serious concerns about cholesterol before the onset of serious illness can be the life-changing turn of events that prevent long-term and costly health issues in the future.