Did you know that high cholesterol has no symptoms?
Neither did I—even when I had it!
8 months after giving birth to my daughter, I heard the shocking news at my annual checkup that my cholesterol was over 300! With the doctor ready to put me on medication, I asked for 6 months to try to rectify the situation by adjusting my diet and lifestyle.
Guess what? It worked.
20 years later, here we are. Medication-free, great cholesterol levels, and a long-term passion for helping others get their health in check. Cholesterol was the spark that ignited my passion for health coaching, and it’s a topic I love to talk about (especially in my heart health myths debunked series on Instagram).
If you’ve found yourself on the end of a “high cholesterol” conversation with your doctor, have been Googling cholesterol questions, or simply want some clarity around cholesterol basics, I’m about to walk you through everything you need to know.
Grab a notebook, let’s talk about cholesterol…
We hear about high cholesterol all the time, but what does that really mean? Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in our blood. Our bodies need cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
High cholesterol results in fatty deposits in our blood vessels and eventually, they can grow large enough to restrict blood flow through our arteries. Additionally, if these deposits break suddenly and form a clot, they can cause a heart attack or stroke.
While high cholesterol can be genetic, it’s often the result of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. Cholesterol is actually an inflammatory response in the body, just like many other health conditions. The good news is that if you can reduce inflammation, then you can reduce your cholesterol.
A healthy diet, regular exercise, and sometimes medication can drastically reduce high cholesterol and increase your lifespan.
But how do I do that?
Here are some basics you should know when it comes to managing your cholesterol:
Don’t correlate these two—just because something might say high in cholesterol, doesn’t mean it will directly affect your cholesterol labs.
For example, eggs receive a bad reputation that actually isn’t true. In fact, eggs are a great source of protein and don’t drive your cholesterol up.
Too many people get caught up in reading labels and forget about the whole picture, instead of focusing on the entirety of their diet and lifestyle. If you have questions, getting your bloodwork done can bring a lot of clarity to the confusion around cholesterol.
Remember, if you want accurate results, make sure to fast leading up to your test!
The vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins that make up all food and beverages can impact blood-level readings, clouding your results. So stop eating and continue to hydrate with water for 8-12 hours before your doctor’s visit.
Not all cholesterol is bad—shocker, right?
In fact, higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. That’s because HDL cholesterol is like a vacuum cleaner for your bloodstream. It’s the positive part of your cholesterol and helps remove other forms of cholesterol from your body.
To make sure your blood gets a frequent vacuum, shoot for an HDL level of 60 mg/dL or above.
Here are the do’s and don’ts to healthfully raise HDL cholesterol.
When you take steps toward a healthier lifestyle, your HDL numbers can rise drastically. While higher HDL increases your overall cholesterol numbers, you’re actually helping your body flush out the bad cholesterol.
Unlike HDL, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol isn’t helpful at high numbers. This “bad” cholesterol transports cholesterol particles throughout your body and builds up in the walls of our arteries, making them hard and narrow.
A poor diet full of saturated fat and trans fats, as well as processed sugary foods, will increase your LDL cholesterol. A lack of exercise, smoking, and certain conditions like diabetes and obesity can also cause high levels of LDL.
Different healthy foods help lower LDL levels in their own ways. For example, polyunsaturated fats directly lower LDL. This soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and its precursors in the digestive system and drags them out of the body before they reach circulation.
To lower your LDL, fill your bowls and plates with healthy grains like oats, barley, and whole grains. Produce, fatty fish, nuts, and healthy oils can also lower that LDL too!
Note: there isn’t an “optimal” level of LDL.
Healthy levels are specific to each person. But as a guideline, it’s healthy to shoot for an LDL level of under 100 mg/dL. To find your ideal LDL levels, you could get an NMR profile completed, but in the meantime, always work to keep your LDL cholesterol on the low side.
While we do need some triglycerides for good health, triglycerides become unhealthy at high levels and will raise your risk of heart disease. Many people in the U.S. are maintaining numbers as high as 800 mg/dL—yikes!
Like LDL cholesterol, triglycerides are boosted when we regularly consume lots of sugar, cheap carbs, and unhealthy oils and they decrease when we exercise and eat healthy whole foods and fats.
As a general rule of thumb, most people should try to get their triglycerides somewhere under 150mg/dl.
It’s no surprise, that about 38% of American adults have high cholesterol and that heart disease and stroke are among the five leading causes of death in our country.
Our titanic consumption of carbs, sugars, and unhealthy fats has played a leading role in boosting our cholesterol numbers—and my story along with others has shown me how easy it is to get confused around the cholesterol conversation.
But let me tell you, managing your cholesterol doesn’t need to be complicated!
The simple combination of over 60 HDL and under 100 LDL and triglycerides will reduce heart disease and heart-related episodes drastically. All it takes is a little knowledge and a few small changes to make the difference.