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What is high cholesterol and how can I lower it ?

Development of atherosclerosis

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.

With high cholesterol, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. Sometimes, those deposits can break suddenly and form a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.

High cholesterol can be inherited, but it’s often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, which make it preventable and treatable. A healthy diet, regular exercise and sometimes medication can help reduce high cholesterol.

  • The biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats and carbohydrates in your diet—not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food.
  • Although it remains important to limit the amount of cholesterol you eat, especially if you have diabetes, for most people dietary cholesterol is not as problematic as once believed.
  • The body uses cholesterol as the starting point to make estrogen, testosterone, vitamin D, and other vital compounds.
  • Cholesterol in the bloodstream, specifically the bad LDL cholesterol, is what’s most important in determining health risk.

Symptoms

High cholesterol has no symptoms. A blood test is the only way to detect if you have it.

When to see a doctor

Ask your doctor if you should have a cholesterol test. Children and young adults with no risk factors for heart disease are usually tested once between the ages of 9 and 11 and again between the ages of 17 and 19. Retesting for adults with no risk factors for heart disease is usually done every five years.

If your test results aren’t within desirable ranges, your doctor might recommend more-frequent measurements. Your doctor might also suggest more-frequent tests if you have a family history of high cholesterol, heart disease or other risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes or high blood pressure.

Causes

Cholesterol is carried through your blood, attached to proteins. This combination of proteins and cholesterol is called a lipoprotein. There are different types of cholesterol, based on what the lipoprotein carries. They are:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, transports cholesterol particles throughout your body. LDL cholesterol builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL, or “good” cholesterol, picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to your liver.

A lipid profile also typically measures triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. Having a high triglyceride level can also increase your risk of heart disease.

Factors you can control — such as inactivity, obesity and an unhealthy diet — contribute to high cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol. Factors beyond your control might play a role, too. For example, your genetic makeup might keep cells from removing LDL cholesterol from your blood efficiently or cause your liver to produce too much cholesterol.

How Fat Moves from Food to the Bloodstream

Fat and cholesterol can’t dissolve in water or blood. Instead, the body packages fat and cholesterol into tiny, protein-covered particles called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins can transport a lot of fat; they mix easily with blood and flow with it. Some of these particles are big and fluffy, while others are small and dense. The most important ones are low-density lipoproteins (LDL), high-density lipoproteins (HDL) , and triglycerides.

  • Low Density lipoproteins

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body. Cells latch onto these particles and extract fat and cholesterol from them. When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, these particles can form deposits in the walls of the coronary arteries and other arteries throughout the body. Such deposits, called plaque, can narrow arteries and limit blood flow. When plaque breaks apart, it can cause a heart attack or stroke. Because of this, LDL cholesterol is often referred to as bad, or harmful, cholesterol.

  • High-density lipoproteins

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) scavenge cholesterol from the bloodstream, from LDL, and from artery walls and ferry it back to the liver for disposal. Think of HDL as the garbage trucks of the bloodstream. HDL cholesterol is often referred to as good, or protective, cholesterol.

  • Triglycerides

Triglycerides make up most of the fat that you eat and that travels through the bloodstream. As the body’s main vehicle for transporting fats to cells, triglycerides are important for good health, though high levels of triglycerides can be unhealthy.

In general, the lower your LDL and the higher your HDL, the better your chances of preventing heart disease and other chronic conditions.

How Fat and Cholesterol in Food Affect Blood Cholesterol Levels

The types of fat in the diet help determine the amount of total, HDL, and LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. The types and amount of carbohydrate in the diet also play a role. Cholesterol in food matters, too, but not nearly as much.

  • The discovery half a century ago that high blood cholesterol levels were strongly associated with an increased risk for heart disease triggered numerous warnings to avoid foods that contain cholesterol, especially eggs and liver. However, scientific studies show a weak relationship between the amount of cholesterol a person consumes and his or her blood cholesterol levels (22)
  • In studies of more than 80,000 female nurses, Harvard researchers found that consuming about an egg a day was not associated with higher risk of heart disease. However, people who have heart disease or diabetes should monitor egg consumption.

For most people, the amount of cholesterol eaten has only a modest impact on the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood.  For some people, though, blood cholesterol levels rise and fall very strongly in relation to the amount of cholesterol eaten. For these “responders,” avoiding cholesterol-rich foods can have a substantial effect on blood cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, at this point there is no way other than by trial and error to identify responders from non-responders to dietary cholesterol.

Risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk of bad cholesterol include:

  • Poor diet. Eating saturated fat, found in animal products, and trans fats, found in some commercially baked cookies and crackers and microwave popcorn, can raise your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in cholesterol, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, will also increase your cholesterol.
  • Obesity. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
  • Lack of exercise. Exercise helps boost your body’s HDL, or “good,” cholesterol while increasing the size of the particles that make up your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which makes it less harmful.
  • Smoking. Cigarette smoking damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them more prone to accumulate fatty deposits. Smoking might also lower your level of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol.
  • Age. Because your body’s chemistry changes as you age, your risk of high cholesterol climbs. For instance, as you age, your liver becomes less able to remove LDL cholesterol.
  • Diabetes. High blood sugar contributes to higher levels of a dangerous cholesterol called very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.

Complications

High cholesterol can cause a dangerous accumulation of cholesterol and other deposits on the walls of your arteries (atherosclerosis).

Development of atherosclerosis
Development of atherosclerosis

These deposits (plaques) can reduce blood flow through your arteries, which can cause complications, such as:

  • Chest pain. If the arteries that supply your heart with blood (coronary arteries) are affected, you might have chest pain (angina) and other symptoms of coronary artery disease.
  • Heart attack. If plaques tear or rupture, a blood clot can form at the plaque-rupture site — blocking the flow of blood or breaking free and plugging an artery downstream. If blood flow to part of your heart stops, you’ll have a heart attack.
  • Stroke. Similar to a heart attack, a stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to part of your brain.

Prevention

The same heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol can help prevent you from having high cholesterol in the first place. To help prevent high cholesterol, you can:

  • Eat a low-salt diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Limit the amount of animal fats and use good fats in moderation
  • Lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise on most days of the week for at least 30 minutes
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all
  • Manage stress

How to Reduce Cholesterol Levels and Where Can I buy the Products ?

Many factors can contribute to elevated blood cholesterol levels. Some of these factors are controllable. Others are not.

The main uncontrollable factor is genetics, which can – at least to some extent – determine cholesterol levels. One genetic condition is called familial hypercholesterolemia; in this situation, a mutation on chromosome 19 reduces the body’s ability to filter LDL cholesterol out of the blood. Cholesterol levels can also be affected by seemingly unrelated conditions, including diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and others.

But some causes of high cholesterol – particularly lifestyle-related ones – are controllable. A lack of exercise, a person’s weight, and a high-fat diet can all lead to elevated blood cholesterol levels. Even for those with genetic predispositions to high cholesterol levels, lifestyle changes can be effective in reducing cholesterol levels and increasing overall quality of life. In some cases, medication may also be necessary to address hypercholesterolemia.

Current scientific evidence suggests that vitamins and minerals alone will not significantly lower cholesterol levels.  However, a growing number of studies show a positive correlation between fish oil supplementation and reduced triglycerides, so concerned individuals may want to discuss use of a fish oil product with their doctor.

Products that reduce cholesterol levels
Products that reduce cholesterol levels

There are a lot of foods that can reduce Cholesterol Levels

Different foods lower cholesterol in various ways. Some deliver soluble fiber, which binds cholesterol and its precursors in the digestive system and drags them out of the body before they get into circulation. Some give you polyunsaturated fats, which directly lower LDL. And some contain plant sterols and stanols, which block the body from absorbing cholesterol.

1. Oats. An easy first step to lowering your cholesterol is having a bowl of oatmeal or cold oat-based cereal like Cheerios for breakfast. It gives you 1 to 2 grams of soluble fiber. Add a banana or some strawberries for another half-gram. Current nutrition guidelines recommend getting 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day, with at least 5 to 10 grams coming from soluble fiber. (The average American gets about half that amount.)

2. Barley and other whole grains. Like oats and oat bran, barley and other whole grains can help lower the risk of heart disease, mainly via the soluble fiber they deliver.

3. Beans. Beans are especially rich in soluble fiber. They also take a while for the body to digest, meaning you feel full for longer after a meal. That’s one reason beans are a useful food for folks trying to lose weight. With so many choices — from navy and kidney beans to lentils, garbanzos, black-eyed peas, and beyond — and so many ways to prepare them, beans are a very versatile food.

4. Eggplant and okra. These two low-calorie vegetables are good sources of soluble fiber.

5. Nuts. A bushel of studies shows that eating almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and other nuts is good for the heart. Eating 2 ounces of nuts a day can slightly lower LDL, on the order of 5%. Nuts have additional nutrients that protect the heart in other ways.

6. Vegetable oils. Using liquid vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, safflower, and others in place of butter, lard, or shortening when cooking or at the table helps lower LDL.

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