Cholesterol is a soft, fatlike substance that is naturally present in the membranes and cell walls of the human body. Cholesterol is actually an essential fat, called a lipid, that the body needs for producing hormones, some vitamins and the bile acids that aid in the digestion of fat. It only takes a tiny amount of cholesterol to meet these needs, however.
Many people have too much cholesterol floating around in the bloodstream, and this poses potential health risks. Excess cholesterol can build up in the walls of the arteries. This buildup is called plaque, and it causes the arteries to harden or narrow over time. Because of this, high cholesterol levels increase the chances of heart disease.
When a physician tests cholesterol levels, the results include low-density lipoprotein (LDL) counts and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) counts. LDL is sometimes referred to as the “bad cholesterol” because it leads to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries and increases the risk of heart disease. HDL is sometimes called the “good cholesterol” because it helps maintain the health of the heart and prevents hardening of the arteries. The higher the HDL level, the lower the risk of heart disease.
There are several different causes of high cholesterol. A predisposition towards higher cholesterol levels can run in families. Sex and age also matter when it comes to cholesterol counts. Recent studies have found that cholesterol levels typically start to rise after individuals reach the age of 20. Men’s cholesterol levels generally level off after age 50. Women’s cholesterol levels are usually fairly low until menopause, after which they rise to higher levels than those of men the same age.
Other uncontrollable causes of high cholesterol counts include some diseases. High blood pressure can raise cholesterol levels if it thickens the walls of the arteries. Hyperthyroidism, cirrhosis of the liver and chronic kidney disease can all be causes of high cholesterol counts. Impaired glucose tolerance and diabetes can also be causes of high cholesterol because they both accelerate the hardening of the arteries. Some medicines are known for raising LDL levels and lowering HDL levels. These medications include estrogen, beta-blockers and diuretics.
Some causes of high cholesterol are easily controllable, however. Because many cases are caused by a diet high in saturated and trans fats, the first step in lowering cholesterol levels is to change the diet. Dietary cholesterol is found in food that comes from animals, including dairy products, egg yolks, seafood, poultry and meat. The saturated fat in these products encourages the body to make more cholesterol than it needs to be healthy. Other cholesterol raising culprits include fried foods and bakery items such as pies, pastries, cakes and rolls. Healthier options are fresh or steamed veggies, fruits, whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice and fish rich in the healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel.
Studies have found that smoking also increases cholesterol levels. This might be because cigarette smokers tend to eat less vegetables and fruits and consume more fat and salt than nonsmokers. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver, which, in turn, can raise the LDL levels. A sedentary lifestyle also raises cholesterol counts. Individuals worried about high cholesterol levels should quit smoking, drink alcohol in moderation and exercise regularly.