Bad Cholesterol Can Be Bad News for Your Heart
An important heart-healthy lifestyle behavior is having your cholesterol checked regularly. But to understand why this is so critical to your cardiovascular health, it’s helpful to know what cholesterol is and what it does.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body uses for several functions, including repairing damage to existing tissue, producing steroid hormones, such as estrogen, and aiding in the production of vitamin D.
There are two sources of cholesterol: your liver and the foods you eat. The liver produces all of the cholesterol your body needs, which then circulates through your body’s cells. Any additional cholesterol comes from the foods you eat. Foods high in saturated and trans fats cause your liver to make additional cholesterol, specifically “bad” LDL cholesterol. But a poor diet isn’t the only culprit. Other factors contributing to higher LDL cholesterol include:
- Aging – Cholesterol levels naturally increase as we get older.
- Menopause – Females typically have higher LDL levels when they’re post-menopausal.
- Genetics – If a close family member has high cholesterol, you have a higher risk of also having it.
A healthy amount of the cholesterol produced by your body, otherwise known as “good” HDL cholesterol, can help reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood.
“Having too much ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and too little ‘good’ HDL cholesterol can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke due to plaque buildup in the arteries,” says Puja Sehgal, M.D., chief of Family Medicine.
High total cholesterol and high triglyceride levels also put you at higher risk. The goal is to keep your HDL at more than 40, your LDL below 100, and total cholesterol below 200.
To increase HDL levels and keep LDL levels at bay, Dr. Sehgal recommends that you:
- Exercise regularly, which has been shown to reduce LDL levels and boost HDL levels. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least 5 times a week.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet, avoiding saturated fats and trans fats by limiting fried foods, fast food, processed baked goods, and red meats. Also increase your consumption of foods with high amounts of soluble fiber, which can lower LDL.
- Don’t smoke, vape, or use other tobacco products. Nicotine can increase LDL levels by lowering HDL levels.
- Limit alcohol consumption to less than 5 oz. per day. Since alcohol is metabolized by the liver, which also produces cholesterol, excessive drinking may increase LDL levels.
- Maintain a healthy weight as determined by your age and height. Studies show that losing as little as 10% of your total weight can lower LDL levels and increase HDL levels.
Because high cholesterol typically has no noticeable symptoms, you should have regular medical checkups. Your doctor can measure your blood cholesterol and help you understand what your levels mean in relation to your overall heart health.