If you’ve had a physical at some point in your adult life, you may have heard something about your cholesterol levels. If you’re like 71 million other Americans, you also might have been told that your cholesterol is high.
Much like high blood pressure or being overweight, you might think to yourself, “Time to get those numbers lower!” But cholesterol is a little different than measures like blood pressure and body weight—lower doesn’t always mean better! Read on to find out which kind of cholesterol you want to lower, how to lower it, and just what cholesterol does for your body.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that occurs naturally throughout the body. It’s carried through the bloodstream in the form of little spheres, called lipoproteins.
When in healthy amounts, cholesterol does a lot of good for your health. It helps your body make cell membranes, vitamin D, and other important hormones that support brain function.
However, those vessels that carry cholesterol through the blood—lipoproteins—come in various forms. The two important ones—as it relates to your health—are high-density lipoproteins (also called HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (also called LDL).
These LDLs are the bad guys when it comes to your health!
How to Fight Bad Cholesterol
When your doctor or provider tells you that your cholesterol is high, they’re most likely talking about your LDL level. When it’s too high, LDL cholesterol builds up in the blood, which can narrow or clog the arteries (sometimes called “plaque buildup”). This raises your risk of having a heart attack, developing heart disease, or having a stroke.
It’s important to know what your LDL level is, because that will help you and your healthcare provider devise a plan to lower those levels if they are too high. For an average healthy adult, you want your LDL to be below 70 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter).
If your LDL is too high, there are a few things you can do to begin lowering it:
- Avoid foods high in saturated fat*, dietary cholesterol, and extra calories
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Stop smoking
Depending on your LDL level and other health risk factors, your provider may also prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug.
*While it’s important to avoid food high in saturated fat, there is one kind of dietary fat that may help to keep your LDL level low: unsaturated fats. These are the kinds of fats found in nuts, olive oil, and fish. Your healthcare provider may recommend consuming more of these unsaturated fats to help with your LDL level.
How to Increase Good Cholesterol
On the other hand, your HDL cholesterol is the good stuff! These are the lipoproteins that contribute to your body’s overall health and help carry cholesterol back to the liver, where your liver flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. For an average healthy adult, your HDL level should be around 50 mg/dl.
Fortunately, the ways to increase your HDL coincide with the ways to decrease your LDL (a.k.a. the bad stuff!). You should:
- Exercise consistently, at least 30 minutes five times a week
- Quit smoking
- Avoid saturated fats in your food
- Lose weight
Much like being prescribed medicine that lowers your LDL level, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine that helps raise your HDL to a healthy level.
What About Triglycerides?
You might have heard your healthcare provider talk about your triglyceride level, along with your HDL and LDL level. This is because, like cholesterol, triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in the bloodstream. In fact, the bulk of your body’s fat tissue is in the form of triglycerides.
The link between triglycerides and heart disease is still being studied. But many people with high triglycerides also have high LDL levels and low HDL levels—both of which are major risk factors for heart disease or stroke. A high triglyceride level can be caused by preexisting conditions like diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, or liver disease. It can also be caused by a poor diet, like drinking too much alcohol or eating foods high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat.
So, your healthcare provider may talk about lowering your LDL and your triglycerides while raising your HDL to improve your overall health.
Make an Appointment Today!
If you don’t know your cholesterol levels, or it’s been more than a year since your last physical, now is the time to schedule a screening with your onsite provider or primary care physician. Most average healthy adults should get a physical each year, but your provider may recommend screenings on a more regular basis if you have multiple risk factors, including high cholesterol.
Don’t wait! The sooner you learn about the status of your health, the sooner you can begin making healthy changes to improve it and live a longer, happier life. And don’t forget to subscribe to our Inspired Living blog for more healthy info, delivered right to you!