Cholesterol is actually a soft, fatty substance that is an important part of the outer lining or membrane of cells. It is found in the human bloodstream as well as in the body's cells.
Why should I be aware of this?
Cholesterol is one of those words that everyone has heard of or knows of but not many actually know what role cholesterol actually plays in our lives. For simply put, knowing the facts about cholesterol can reduce the risk for a heart attack or stroke.
High levels of cholesterol in the blood can increase the risk of heart disease. Your cholesterol levels tend to rise as you get older. There are usually no signs or symptoms that you have high blood cholesterol, but it can be detected with a blood test. You are likely to have high cholesterol if members of your family have it, if you are overweight or if you eat a lot of fatty foods.
All about cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that occurs naturally in all parts of the body. Your body needs some cholesterol to work properly. But if you have too much in your blood, it can stick to the walls of your arteries. This is called plaque. Plaque can narrow your arteries or even block them.
The human body requires cholesterol in the system for it helps in producing cell membranes and also in the creation of certain hormones, which carry chemical signals around the body. It is used to insulate nerve fibres. It is also essential for some body functions and keeps the body healthy. The problem happens when there is a build up of more than required cholesterol.
Kinds of Cholesterol
One of the main properties of cholesterol is that it cannot dissolve in the blood. It gets transported from one cell to the other by lipoproteins. It is these lipoproteins, also known as carriers, help us distinguish between good and bad cholesterols for low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is known as “bad” cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as “good” cholesterol.
- LDL or bad Cholesterol -- When there is a excessive build up of too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, it starts the clogging up of the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain. Together with other substances, it can form plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible. And It this this condition that leads to heart attacks and strokes.
- HDL or good Cholesterol -- Constituting about one-fourth to one-third of blood cholesterol, HDL cholesterol are known to protect against heart attack. Medical experts think that HDL tends to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it's passed from the body. This HDL removes excess cholesterol from arterial plaque, thus slowing its buildup resulting in healthy body.
It is another fatty substance in the blood. People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL (bad) level and a low HDL (good) level.
The greatest danger is when someone has high levels of LDL cholesterol and trigylcerides, and low levels of HDL cholesterol. It's the balance of different types of lipoproteins, rather than the overall total cholesterol level, that matters. This overall risk is determined by a combination of factors, including age, gender, family history of heart disease, and whether someone smokes, is overweight, has high blood pressure or diabetes.
What determines Cholesterol?
Cholesterol levels in the blood gets accounted for by a few reasons. Some of these things one can control and others cannot be controlled.
The main reasons are
- Genetic predisposition and family health history -- An inherited genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia results in very high LDL cholesterol levels. It begins at birth, and could result in a heart attack at an early age.
- Age and Sex -- Starting at puberty, men have lower levels of the good cholesterol than women. As people get older, their bad cholesterol levels rise. When women are younger, they have lower bad cholesterol levels than men, but after age 55, women have higher levels than men.
- Obesity and being overweight -- Physical Exercise tends to increase HDL levels, which lowers the chances of developing heart disease.
- Dietary patterns -- Certain foods have types of fat that raise the cholesterol levels. A diet high in saturated fat and trans-fatty acids, normally found in most of processed foods result in an increase in LDL levels.
- Physical activity -- Sedentary lifestyle with low or no physical activity can contribute to the raise in blood cholesterol level.
- Alcohol consumption -- too much of alcohol consumption may strain the liver, which leads to raise in LDL cholesterol level and drop in HDL cholesterol level.
Signs and Symptoms
There are usually no signs or symptoms of high blood cholesterol. Many people don't know that their cholesterol level is too high until it is too late. Medical experts say that people above the age of 20 should have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every 5 years. High cholesterol can be checked by a simple blood test. But just knowing about the cholesterol level is not enough. One needs to have a full lipid profile that constitutes LDL, HDL and triglycerides called a lipoprotein profile. It gives information about total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and triglycerides.
What can I do?
You can keep your cholesterol under control. If one is genetically inclined towards a higher level of bad cholesterol, it is difficult to change that but one can make changes in life and habits to prevent a serious attack.
- Avoid having processed foods.
- Try to eat less saturated fat and foodstuff with trans fat.
- Make a habit of getting some kind of exercise. It strengthens the heart and lowers bad cholesterol
- Stop smoking
Healthy eating habits
- Consume more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pulses and lentils and fish.
- Replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats - for example, cook with olive oil or another heart-friendly oil instead of using butter or stick margarine.
- In meats, have lean meat like skinless poultry. Make sure to remove all noticeable fat before cooking and drain the fat from the pan after browning meats.
- As much as possible, avoid eating fried foods. Instead try boiling, baking, roasting, poaching, steaming or sautéing.
- Instead of whole milk, use low-fat or nonfat milk, which contains all the nutrients without all the fat
- Include tofu and peas in your meal.
- Consuming garlic can slightly lower blood cholesterol levels
- Avoid products that contain hydrogenated vegetable oils.
- Recent studies have shown that lowering cholesterol in people without heart disease greatly reduces their risk for developing heart disease in the first place.
- The American Heart Association recommends that cholesterol intake should be less than 300 milligrams a day, total fat intake should be 30% or less of your total calories, and saturated fat should be 10% or less of the total daily calories you consume.
- Asians on average have an LDL cholesterol level of less than 95 because of their low fat diet. Anything under 100 for LDL cholesterol is considered good.
- Diet and lifestyle changes, without the use of drugs, have been shown to decrease LDL cholesterol in one year’s time by 40 percent on average
Further reading and online resources
- Watch Statins - The Dark Side
- Watch a short interview on the Dangers of Statin Drugs with Robert Kowalski of the new 8 week cholesterol cure
- Watch a short documentary on Lowering Cholesterol (Cholesterol #4)
- Take the cholesterol test
- To know more about what the blod test results mean, visit How Is High Blood Cholesterol Diagnosed?