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Cholesterol is a fat molecule synthesized by the body to serve various vital and structural functions. Your body produces these molecules on its own, and also absorbs it from foods you eat, especially animal sources like meat, dairy, and eggs.
High levels of cholesterol in your blood is known to cause heart and blood vessel diseases. Cholesterol can bind to other substances in your bloodstream and clog up your arteries which can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.
You’ve probably heard of LDL, HDL, and VLDL cholesterol, which are different types of cholesterol, and that some are “bad” and some are “good”. In general, LDL cholesterol is termed “bad” cholesterol for its tendency to build up in vessel walls damaging them. HDL cholesterol is termed “good” cholesterol for its counteractive effect, where it transports cholesterol from your bloodstream back into the liver, preventing its buildup in your vessels. Having too much bad cholesterol (LDL), and/or very little good cholesterol (HDL) is dangerous, and can lead to the mentioned conditions.
What causes high cholesterol?
Several factors could contribute to high cholesterol levels, and they all have to do with your lifestyle:
- An unhealthy diet: eating processed, fried, and fast foods that are rich in saturated and trans fats is a major source of bad (LDL) cholesterol. These fats are also found in different sweets, fatty meat, dairy foods, and pastry.
- A sedentary lifestyle: moderate and intense physical activity is needed to lower your LDL cholesterol and elevate the protective HDL cholesterol.
- Smoking: like in many other diseases, smoking is a cause. Smoking raises your LDL cholesterol levels and reduces the HDL cholesterol level, tipping the balance towards more problems.
The good news is, there are many medications in use today that can help you manage your high cholesterol level and protect your body against its dire effects. Moreover, there are several diet and lifestyle changes that you can adopt to reduce your cholesterol level naturally without needing medications:
1. Take control of your diet
The thing is, a high cholesterol level is largely a dietary problem. The importance of controlling what and how much you eat cannot be stressed enough.
- Avoid saturated fats: These fats are found in many of the things we eat, especially meat products. Processed and fast foods contain higher proportions of saturated fats, and hence it’s best if you avoid these altogether. These fats mainly increase your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and are not a healthy choice.
- No more trans fats: The FDA is working on banning trans fats from food products for the ill effects they cause. These fats are usually found in fried foods and some forms of pastry. You can check the label on the product you’re buying and search for the ones containing “partially hydrogenated oil”, which is a more complex way of saying trans fats.
- Choose foods with good cholesterol: As already mentioned, HDL cholesterol is considered a good type of cholesterol, one that protects your vessels and prevents them from clogging up. Foods like avocado, olive oil, fresh nuts, fish, and some fruits are good HDL sources and would be a great substitute for unhealthy foods in your diet.
- Opt for foods high in fiber: These foods can help reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed by your guts, and hence would help drop your LDL. Foods like oatmeal, beans, fruits, vegetables, and seeds are rich in fiber, and you would be smart to incorporate them into your diet.
- Try foods rich in Omega-3: These are a special type of fatty acids that you’ve probably already heard of. Many studies claim that Omega-3 protects your heart and improves your health. The most famous source of this nutrient is fish. You can try to replace red meat in your diet for fish to take the full benefit.
2. Exercise more
As already said, having a sedentary lifestyle puts you at a higher risk of having high cholesterol. You can work out around 30 minutes, 3 to 5 times a week to stay within the recommended physical activity level. Staying active can raise your good cholesterol (HDL) levels and protect you against various metabolic disorders.
Now, you don’t have to start running marathons right away, but you can start by choosing to walk more often rather than drive. Maybe invest in a bicycle and take it to work twice a week. With time, your body will be more used to moving and you can start doing higher intensity exercises like jogging or swimming.
3. No more smoking
As with most other medical conditions, smoking is one of the causes. It is well known that smoking harms your heart and blood vessels, and can cause many types of cancer. Stopping smoking can help raise the level of HDL cholesterol, enhancing its protective effects on your body.
4. Lose those extra pounds
If you’re overweight or obese, you should consider losing some weight through diet and exercise. Extra weight is an important cause of metabolic disturbances which include high cholesterol. Moreover, obesity can lead to many diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and heart problems.
You can lose weight by adjusting your diet and exercising a little more. Seeking the help of a healthcare professional to set a comprehensive diet and training program can be worthwhile.
5. If you drink, do so in moderation
Some studies have shown that moderate consumption of alcohol may increase HDL cholesterol, which is a good thing. Nevertheless, data is still inconsistent in this regard, but if you do indeed drink alcohol, make sure you do so in moderation. This translates to a maximum of one alcoholic drink per day for women or two drinks for men.
High cholesterol is harmful to your health and is usually a result of unhealthy life habits. The most important controllable factor contributing to high blood cholesterol is your diet. By getting your diet in check, and maybe exercising a little more and quitting some bad habits, you will probably be able to control your cholesterol levels and gain numerous other health benefits.
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About the Author:
Mersad Alimoradi is a medical doctor specializing in general surgery, with a big interest in academia. He is passionate about spreading medical knowledge and making it accessible to everyone. He has received his medical degree from the Lebanese University, in Beirut, and currently works as a physician and researcher in the country's university hospitals.