High cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolaemia is one of the common health conditions affecting Americans. If you have a high cholesterol, it does not mean you have a disease. But it is still something to be very concerned about because it can lead to serious health problems like cardiovascular disease.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a wax-like substance produced by your liver. You also get cholesterol from the foods that you eat. Cholesterol is essential for your health; your body needs it to produce cell tissues, some types of hormones and protect your nerves. However, too much cholesterol in your body is not good for your health. Since your body naturally produces all the cholesterol required for normal body functioning, you only need to eat cholesterol-rich foods in very little quantity. There are two types of cholesterol. One is referred to as the good type and the other as the bad type.
The good type of cholesterol is known as HDL (High-density lipoprotein) cholesterol while the bad type is known as LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the bad type of cholesterol for certain reasons. LDL cholesterol carries cholesterol particles around your body. It also accumulates in the walls of your arteries, causing them to become narrow and hard. When this happens, it can restrict the flow of blood through your arteries and can cause problems like heart attack and stroke. It can also cause chest pain.
HDL cholesterol on the other hand removes cholesterol from your bloodstream and returns it to your liver. This protects your arteries from hardening and narrowing, a condition called atherosclerosis. This is one of the reasons HDL cholesterol is good for your health. If you have high levels of HDL cholesterol that is not a problem, but high levels of LDL cholesterol definitely is.
What Causes High Levels of Cholesterol?
The only way you can tell you have a high cholesterol is by going for a test. There are usually no symptoms of high cholesterol levels. A blood test known as lipid profile or lipid panel shows the total amount of cholesterol in your body. It shows the amount of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. If you have done the test, and it shows that you have high levels of cholesterol, several factors may be responsible. They include:
High levels of cholesterol may be inherited if you have a family member with high cholesterol. High cholesterol runs in some families. If your high cholesterol level is due to heredity, it means that you inherited a gene that causes your liver to produce more cholesterol than your body actually needs or that prevents the cells of your body from effectively removing cholesterol from your blood.
Since your body already produces cholesterol, if you eat a lot of foods high in saturated fat and trans fat, this would cause the levels of cholesterol in your body to go up. Saturated fat causes the liver to produce more LDL cholesterol. Trans fat lowers the level of HDL cholesterol in your body and increases the level of LDL cholesterol. Trans fats are vegetable oils that have been solidified through the process of hydrogenation.
Processed and packaged foods, fried foods and baked foods are high in trans fat and it is best to strike them out of your diet completely. These include foods like baked products containing shortening, buttered popcorn, crackers, potato chips, cakes and pastries. Saturated fat is found in foods like lamb, butter, lard and cream, cheese, red meat, dairy products, pork, poultry with skin and mayonnaise. These foods are to be eaten in little amounts. Oils like palm oil, coconut oil and palm kernel oil are high in saturated fat and can be substituted with healthier oils.
Obesity and Overweight
Being obese or overweight can cause high cholesterol levels. A lot of people who have high cholesterol are either overweight or obese. Excess weight reduces the level of HDL cholesterol and increases the level of LDL cholesterol in your body. Obesity or overweight may also be inherited, but it can also be caused by unhealthy diet.
In the United States, tobacco use is the leading cause of death, disability and preventable disease. It is a risk factor of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, lung disease and cancer. When you smoke, the walls of your blood vessels gets damaged and this damage makes them susceptible to accumulate fatty deposits. Smoking also reduces the levels of HDL cholesterol, while promoting the bad one.
What are the Risk Factors of High Cholesterol?
When certain factors are present, they make it more likely for you to have high levels of bad cholesterol. Some of these factors are:
As you get older, your risk of high cholesterol increases. Aging also affects how the liver performs. As you age, your liver would not be able to get rid of LDL cholesterol. In men, their risk of high cholesterol increases from age 45, and in women, the risk increases from 55.
The level of LDL cholesterol rises in women after menopause, although women are more likely to have high HDL cholesterol than men.
If you have a parent or sibling who has a health condition like heart disease, you are at a greater risk of high cholesterol.
What is the Treatment of High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol can be treated. High cholesterol is mostly treated by making dietary and lifestyle changes. Depending on the cause of the condition, your doctor may also prescribe some medications for you, especially if diet and lifestyle changes have not been effective.These dietary and lifestyle changes are also very effective in reducing your risk of high cholesterol, especially when the risk factors of high cholesterol that are beyond your control are present. These risk factors are gender, age and family history.
How can High Cholesterol be Prevented?
To prevent high cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of the condition, these are the simple things you can try out:
- Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise every day, and as you do this, limit the time you spend sitting
- Eliminate trans fats from your diet and reduce your intake of saturated fats
- Avoid alcohol
- If you smoke, quit smoking
- Lose weight if you are obese or overweight
- Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- Manage stress
- Watch your salt intake
Doing these, would help to reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol in your body and increase HDL cholesterol. If after you have made these changes but your cholesterol levels still remain high, your doctor may recommend certain drugs for you. The type of drug or drugs your doctor would recommend would be determined by factors like your age and your health condition. Common drugs used to treat high cholesterol are statins, cholesterol absorption inhibitors and bile-acid-binding resins. Supplements may also be recommended.
If you are yet to check your cholesterol levels, it is important that you do so. High cholesterol usually does not have symptoms. Most people who have high cholesterol are usually not aware of the condition until they suffer a stroke or heart attack. If you have a child, your child should also get tested. Children can also be affected by high cholesterol, and just like in adults, high cholesterol in children can cause serious health problems.