Though you’re probably familiar with cholesterol in the general sense or at least know the difference between good and bad, do you really know what cholesterol is? It is a waxy substance found in the lipids or fats in your blood.
Your body actually produces some cholesterol on its own and it is a necessary part of the process for building healthy cells, but you can have too much of a good thing.
High cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease – it doubles your risk, to be specific. So, too much cholesterol is bad – that’s pretty obvious. But how much cholesterol is too much, and what are the causes of high cholesterol? Keep reading to learn more about the difference
What’s the Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol?
While you may think of it simply as blood, your blood contains a variety of different substances including fats, also known as lipids. Another substance found in your blood is triglycerides – these come from the food you eat and they are a component found in your body fat. High levels of triglycerides in your blood can lead to higher levels in your adipose tissue which, in turn, increases your cholesterol levels.
But what’s the difference between good cholesterol and bad? Good cholesterol is high-density lipoprotein or HDL and bad cholesterol is low-density lipoprotein or LDL. Each of these is measured in milligrams per deciliter. HDL helps reduce your risk for heart disease and it has a protective effect on your blood vessels while LDL has the opposite effect – it can clog your arteries and increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. You should also keep an eye on your total cholesterol which consists of your HDL, LDL, and triglycerides.
Now that you know the difference between good and bad cholesterol, you may be wondering how much bad cholesterol is too much and how much good cholesterol is enough.
Unfortunately, there are no symptoms of high cholesterol,and you can’t tell what your good cholesterol level is based on any physical signs either. The only way to test your cholesterol is to do a blood test. In order for your HDL cholesterol to be in the healthy range, it should be at least 60 mg/dL or higher.
Your LDL cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL – anything over is considered high cholesterol.
If you haven’t had your cholesterol checked lately and you’re over the age of 20, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to have it done.
What Are the Causes of High Cholesterol?
One of the most common causes of high cholesterol is an unhealthy diet – but you probably already knew that. Eating too much saturated fat (like the kind you’d find in a breakfast of fried eggs and bacon) can increase your bad cholesterol levels, as can fats that come from most animal products. You can also find saturated fat in things like margarine, packaged foods, snacks, and baked goods.
Diet is an obvious cause of high cholesterol, but what other factors contribute to an increased risk for this common health problem? Here are five causes of high cholesterol you might not know about:
- Obesity – You already know that being overweight or obese is bad for you, but obesity and its markers can also increase your risk for high cholesterol. Having a BMI over 30 and a waist circumference over 40 inches for men (35 inches) for women puts you at risk for high cholesterol.
- Lack of Exercise – Regular exercise isn’t just good for your heart – it also helps to increase your HDL cholesterol levels while increasing the size of LDL cholesterol molecules which makes them less harmful.
- Smoking – Smoking cigarettes doesn’t just damage your lungs – it actually damages the walls of your blood vessels which makes them more likely to accumulate cholesterol and other substances that make up atherosclerotic plaques. It may also lower HDL levels.
- Diabetes – Like cigarette smoking, high blood sugar can damage the lining of your arteries as well. Chronic high blood sugar also increases your risk for high LDL cholesterol and lowers your HDL cholesterol.
- Genetics – You can’t control genetics and, unfortunately, certain genes and inherited conditions can increase your risk for high cholesterol.
Though high cholesterol may not cause any physical symptoms, that doesn’t mean it isn’t doing any damage. Left untreated, high cholesterol can contribute to atherosclerosis or the accumulation ofplaque in your arteries. As plaque accumulates, it narrows the opening in your arteries which limits the amount of oxygenated blood that can flow through on its way to essential organs like the heart and brain. If an artery supplying blood to the heart becomes blocked, it causes a heart attack and a blockage in a vessel leading to the brain can cause a stroke.
Tips for Managing High Cholesterol
If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you need to take action sooner rather than later to reverse the damage. Start by reducing your intake of saturated and trans fats by choosing lean proteins, high-fiber foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables as the staples of your diet.
Make an effort to exercise several times a week and drop bad habits like smoking and drinking alcohol in excess. If you are a smoker, quit now or at least start taking steps to reduce your consumption. If you are diabetic, talk to your doctor about ways to better manage your condition.
If these steps aren’t enough to bring your LDL cholesterol down into the healthy range, your doctor may recommend cholesterol-lowering medications like statin drugs. Stains work by blocking a specific substance that the liver requires to produce cholesterol. This won’t affect your dietary intake of cholesterol, but it may help control your total cholesterol and LDL levels. Other medications that might help include bile-acid-binding resins, cholesterol absorption inhibitors, and injectable medications like Alirocumab (Praluent) and evolocumab (Repatha). If you also have high triglycerides, your doctor may recommend additional medications like fibrates, niacin, or omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
While you may not feel any negative effects caused by high cholesterol, your diet and lifestyle could be contributing to damage to your arteries which increase your risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. It is never too early to start making healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol. You certainly don’t want to wait until it is too late.