“Man sane en corpore sane” is a Latin phrase translated to mean “sound mind and sound body.” It is to be the picture of health. In this day and age, everyone is searching for the fountain of youth that will keep them young and fit. Fortunately we all have that ability and it doesn’t involve Ponce de Leon.
The ability to change our bodies lies with us and within us. Taking control of your physical and mental health begins with learning where you stand now and consciously moving forward to an optimal state of health.
One component of a healthy body is blood cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a hot topic these days. For a long time many people didn’t take notice of it but it has become apparent that when cholesterol is not in balance it can affect your entire body and your longevity.
In this article, we will discuss many components of cholesterol.
You Will Learn:
- What cholesterol is
- What it does
- Where it comes from
- What affects cholesterol levels
- The consequences of high cholesterol
- Changes that can lower your cholesterol
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a natural component of the internal environment of the body. It is a waxy molecule that is used in many bodily functions. For one, it is used in cellular membranes to help maintain their integrity. Also, cholesterol is instrumental in creating hormones specifically steroids and sex hormones. So, the body relies heavily on a normal level of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Cholesterol is instrumental in turning sunlight into Vitamin D. Vitamin D works to increase calcium stores in the body. Calcium, as you know, is needed for strong bones and teeth.
However, the body naturally manufactures adequate amounts of cholesterol to sustain optimal body functioning and so any extra cholesterol added through our diet, is unnecessary and when levels become too high cholesterol becomes potentially dangerous.
Has your Doctor told you that your cholesterol is too high and he/she wants you to use a statin drug to lower it? You need to be wary about starting a statin drug as there are many dangerous side effects associated with them.
What are the Components of Cholesterol?
Cholesterol has three main components: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and triglycerides. Each serves a specific purpose.
Cholesterol moves along through the bloodstream from place to place conducting its business. Because it doesn’t dissolve and therefore can’t pass through membrane wall, it needs a carrier, namely the lipoproteins to help it get to the cells where it works.
Let’s look at LDL first. This is termed the “bad” cholesterol. When LDL levels are too high, fatty deposits, or plaque, can start to build up on the walls of your arteries, decreasing the amount of blood that can flow through them and putting you at greater risk of heart attacks, stroke, arteriosclerosis or coronary heart disease.
It is produced in the liver. Just like other lipoproteins, it is a carrier for cholesterol throughout the blood. Levels are kept low because it is a sticky lipoprotein. This means that it will adhere to arterial walls. The arteries become stiff, a condition known as atherosclerosis.
When there is too much LDL, it can form hard plaques inside the vessels. These plaques narrow the opening inside the vessels through which blood has to pass. The heart has to pump that much harder to get blood through. This may increase the blood pressure. Too much pressure can dislodge the plaques allowing them to travel leading to pulmonary embolus or stroke.
HDL cholesterol is termed “good” cholesterol. These lipid molecules transport cholesterol also. It can be thought of as a sweeper because it goes behind and cleans up what was done by the LDL cholesterol. It is important to have high levels of good cholesterol to counteract any affects of bad cholesterol in your body.
The cholesterol that is carried is excess cholesterol found in the bloodstream. The cholesterol is returned to the liver where it is slated for excretion from the body. This is good because it helps remove sticky LDL cholesterol from arterial walls reducing the buildup of life-threatening plaque deposits.
Triglycerides are another component of blood cholesterol. These are fats that are produced in the liver and also enter the body as fat from the foods that we eat. Like the other two components, it does not travel alone throughout the body. It combines with a protein and is referred to as VLDL (very low density lipoprotein). If high levels of LDL cholesterol are bad, then combining it with high levels of VLDL, your risk of stenotic vessels, heart attack and stroke increase.
Triglycerides provide energy for the body. Like other energy sources what isn’t used is stored in the body as fat.
Symptoms of High Cholesterol
Like high blood pressure which is often referred to as the silent killer, high cholesterol generally has no symptoms and is usually only discovered during a routine check up or when something goes wrong.
If your cholesterol levels are very high, you may notice small yellow nodules beneath the skin of your eyes, eyebrows or elbows.
However, a blood test is the only way to determined cholesterol levels and according to the American Heart Association, all adults over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol levels checked every 3-5 years, especially if they are overweight, already have a cholesterol problem or if there is a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol.
A lipid panel is conducted to show the levels of each component in the blood to come up with a total cholesterol number. While the total number is important, the breakdown of each will let you know what you have to worry or not worry about.
Healthy Cholesterol Levels:
- LDL – lower than 100 mg/dL
- HDL – higher than 60 mg/dL (40-60 mg/dL is considered acceptable)
- Triglycerides (VLDL) – lower than 150 mg/dL
- Total cholesterol – less than 200 mg/dL
Your doctor will give you a report detailing your numbers. If they are outside of the above numbers, you will more than likely discuss risk factors and also ways to change any unacceptable levels.
Keep in mind that cholesterol levels will change from person to person depending on the presence or absence of a number of factors that may put you at increased risk of heart disease. For the most accurate measurements, don’t eat or drink anything (other than water) for nine to 12 hours before the blood test
Factors that Affect Cholesterol
Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and your food. The body can regulate how much cholesterol it produces for its needs. Alone, it is not enough to meet all the needs so some cholesterol will have to come from food. This is the factor that is not so well controlled.
Carrying excess body weight puts you at risk for many diseases and conditions. Why is this so? Well, when the amount of fats taken in via food are more than the body needs for energy and cellular function, it gets stored as fat.
This fat increases our body weight and blood cholesterol levels. Usually this cholesterol is of the variety that contains is carried from the liver as LDL. Increased bad cholesterol levels also increase the risk of narrow arteries. The heart works harder when there is more tissue to oxygenate and fat has poor vascularity. Reducing your weight can lower your risk for heart attack, high blood pressure and lower the overall cholesterol number.
We don’t always eat what we should be eating. Let’s face it: greasy fatty food tastes better than natural fruits and vegetables. The preservatives and chemical processes that are used to create fast foods and instant foods along with Trans fats are damaging our bodies by raising bad cholesterol levels.
Natural foods do not contain any or very little preservatives. Fat calories are obtained from lean meats, nuts, beans and other foods. These healthier fats don’t add to the bad cholesterol but help to bolster levels of good cholesterol.
How many of us are leading a sedentary life? Office jobs and long work hours leave no time for exercise. It is enough that we get home, fix dinner, attend to the children and get to bed. Heading out to the fast food restaurant is a result of this lack of time too.
Weight plays a factor here as well. The more weight we pack on, the less energy we seem to have. When bodies are out of shape it is easy to get winded.
Technology like video games promotes less movement. When food is not burned as energy, it gets stored as fat. It is a vicious cycle to be sure.
Some people have an inclination towards high cholesterol based on their ethnic background. This doesn’t mean that others are not at risk. Anyone can develop high blood cholesterol levels if they possess the risk factors. Developing atherosclerosis from high levels of LDL cholesterol leads to heart attack and stroke.
Women are in a high risk category for heart disease. Their risk factors are obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Any one of these can increase cholesterol levels.
African Americans and Hispanics are also more likely to die of heart disease. But it is not just race, but genetic makeup, lifestyle choices and socioeconomic backgrounds that all work together to make up the profile. For example, lack of proper medical care brought on by lack of money or insurance means those people are less likely to get their cholesterol checked and receive treatment.
Diabetes is also prevalent among the African American population. Obesity plays a part in its development. High levels of blood cholesterol bring diabetics in line with risk for heart disease.
Smoking is a lifestyle source that not only affects the lungs but also cholesterol. The smoke from cigarettes is filled with toxins that are hazardous to the body. One toxin, acrolein is thought to affect the body’s metabolism of cholesterol. Quitting smoking can help lower your cholesterol levels to save your lungs and the rest of you.
Managing your health is also important to lowering cholesterol risk. If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, managing treatment will help keep blood cholesterol levels in check. Stay on your medications once they are prescribed. Do not voluntarily discontinue them without doctor approval.
Consequences of High Cholesterol
Strokes occur when blood vessels in the brain are blocked. How do they get that way? Any artery can be affected by sticky cholesterol plaques. Carotid arteries that supply the brain with blood are also subject to narrowing.
As blood flows through the vessels with greater pressure, one of these plaques can be dislodged. If it becomes lodged again in a smaller vessel it will totally block blood flow and therefore oxygen to brain tissue. Lack of blood can cause an infarct in the brain resulting in a stroke.
The heart is a muscle. It works to pump blood throughout the body. Oxygenated blood is picked up in the lungs and transported systemically and then back to the lungs again.
Since the heart is a muscle it can also grow larger. That happens when it has to consistently pump harder to get blood moving through the vascular system.
When blood vessels are affected by LDL cholesterol, hard plaques have a chance to form, narrowing the lumen. In small vessels that are already narrow, they can become totally blocked.
The heart muscle gets its blood supply from coronary arteries. If these small arteries are blocked a heart attack can be the result. Coronary artery bypass or a stent (of applicable) are used to reopen the vessels for blood to flow. With bypass surgery, the blockage is bypassed for proper blood flow to the heart.
Researchers are still looking into the correlation between high insulin levels and cholesterol. It seems that uncontrolled diabetes especially can raise the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. Lowering cholesterol levels can help those who are borderline diabetic from developing the condition.
Lowering Your Cholesterol
There are risk factors that we can control and those that we can’t that play a role in cholesterol levels. For the risk factors that we can control there is help out there to get you going in the right direction. Reversing and managing cholesterol numbers now can stop nastier health problems before they begin.
Risk factors that you can’t control will often require outside intervention. This is where treatment options offered by a doctor come in. We will discuss those too.
The Facts about Fats
- Modern day society has taught us that “fats” are bad and while we so often try to avoid them, they are usually present in most of the tasty foods we all like to eat. The fact is that we all need fats.A certain amount of dietary fat helps in some very important bodily processes such as nutrient absorption, nerve transmission, maintaining cell membranes and hormone production.However, when consumed in excess, fats can lead to a number of health concerns such as weight gain, heart disease and certain types of cancer.
- It is important to replace the bad fats with good fats in our diet, an essential key in trying to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Bad fats include saturated and trans fats, while good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
- Limit the amount of saturated fats consumed. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs and certain types of seafood (especially shell fish). Plant foods that are high in saturated fats include coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.
- Trans fats are another type of bad fat with absolutely no nutritional benefit and should be at the top of the list of fats to avoid. Also known as trans fatty acids this unhealthy substance is man-made through a chemical process of hydrogenation of oils.This hydrogenation process solidifies liquid oils and increases the shelf life and the flavor stability of oils and the foods that contain them.Unfortunately, Trans fats are found in many tasty treats including products with vegetable shortenings, most margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, fast foods (especially French fries) and the list goes on.
- Monounsaturated fats are known as good fats as they lower total cholesterol as well as LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), while increasing the HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) in your system. In moderation, these fats are good for you and can be found in nuts, canola, and olive oil.
- Polyunsaturated fats are also a good source of fats as they too lower LDL cholesterol. Foods containing polyunsaturated fats include salmon and fish oil, most grain products, soy, and sunflower oil.Some mayonnaise and soft margarine may also be good sources, but this will differ between brands so be sure to check the product label.
Foods to Eat
Have you ever examined your diet? If not, try keeping a food diary for a week. Record everything that you eat and drink. You may be amazed at the choices that you are making. But, there is something that you can do.
It takes time to change a lifetime of poor dietary habits so go easy on yourself. Strive to change one habit every couple of weeks. They say that it takes about fourteen days to make or break a habit so get one under your belt before adding another.
Begin with making substitutions in your diet. Let’s say that you like macaroni and cheese. How about using whole wheat pasta and lower fat cheese? To make it creamy try adding some low-fat milk.
Processed foods are full of fat and unhealthy chemicals that are not good for anyone. This includes the ones that are endorsed by diet programs. Instead of spending money on those, try to purchase healthy natural ingredients and create your own dishes at home. The advantage here is that you know all of the ingredients in the food that you eat.
What foods can you purchase and give you the results you want? Here’s a short list:
- Grains (whole wheat, quinoa, barley, oats, oat bran, etc.)
- Lean meats (lean pork, beef, skinless/boneless chicken breasts)
- Seafood and fish (shrimp, salmon, tuna)
- Fruits and vegetables (greens, citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.)
- Nuts and oils (almonds, walnuts-unseasoned, olive, flaxseed)
- Beans (navy, lima, green, soy, white, etc-dried not canned)
This is just a rudimentary list. The more natural foods are the more nutrients they will contain. Nuts and oils provide healthy fats that help to increase heart health and raise HDL levels. Eating more fiber will eliminate a portion of your fat intake from your body along with it. Finding a good book on nutrition will let you in on all of the health benefits of certain foods.
Foods to Avoid
This list can be almost as long as the good food list. We already know most of the foods on this list but need reminding from time to time. While many eating plans give you a day to eat freely, it is probably best not to do that so often until your cholesterol levels are back within normal range.
- Fast foods (especially ones that use trans fats in preparation)
- Processed sweets (baked goods and candy)
- Frozen quick meals (ones with too much saturated fat and not enough fiber)
- Fatty snack foods (donuts, chips)
- Duck, organ meats (such as chicken livers, brains, hearts, kidneys, or sweetbreads), meats that are high in saturated fats
- Full fat dairy (milk, yogurt and cheeses)
- Sodas (lots of sugar)
- Fried foods, egg yolks
Your best asset will be reading labels. Here you will find total cholesterol, total fat, calories, protein, fiber and details about vitamins and minerals.
Exercise plays a big role in disease prevention. The body that is in optimal physical condition can do so many things. For instance, muscle mass is increased as well as tone. Toxins are better able to be eliminated from the body.
Increased oxygenation promotes clarity and mental focus. Your will also notice that you have more energy to do what you need to do each day. Don’t forget about those endorphins. They can lower incidents of depression by lifting your mood.
Exercise also lowers your weight. Weight management leads to lower incidence of diabetes and lower levels of bad cholesterol. As you age, you are better able to fight off diseases with increased immune response and a fit body.
Smoking is also a habit that needs to be broken. As we mentioned before, chemical toxins present in cigarettes has an effect on cholesterol levels. You will be able to increase your lung capacity when exercising which will increase your oxygen levels overall.
Now we get to the factors that are a little harder to control. Heredity plays a role in cholesterol levels. Families with a tendency towards heart disease and diabetes put family members on alert for what they might expect in their future. Being proactive is the best way to go.
Those who are diagnosed with high cholesterol do have a chance to turn things around. People with a history of high cholesterol may not be able to lower their numbers with diet and exercise alone. They need medication to help in the process.
Doctors prescribe cholesterol medication to work within the liver and lower the levels of LDL cholesterol. They have a slight effect on triglyceride and HDL levels. The most common ones are your statin drugs. Examples include: Zocor, Lipitor, Crestor and Pravachol. There are also cholesterol medications that are found in combination with other drugs when more than one problem exists such as high blood pressure.
A new class of cholesterol medication works in the digestive system. The one that is currently on the market is Zetia. It helps to eliminate cholesterol directly from the bloodstream before it can be absorbed by the intestines.
When taking blood pressure medication, make sure that you ask your doctor about side effects. Inform him if you are taking other medications so that there are no drug interactions that could result. One of the common side effects of statins is that it can affect the function of your liver. It is recommended that blood work be done to test for liver function every three months when you are taking them.
If you are more into holistic medicine, ask your doctor about supplements that work similar to statins. One that comes to mind is Red yeast rice. It has long been used in the Far East to help keep cholesterol in check.
Supplements should not be taken in conjunction with traditional medications unless ordered by a doctor. The supplement may interfere with the efficacy of the statin drug.
Blood cholesterol levels are important to know. Do you know your levels? If you don’t know, have a blood test done. High levels of certain cholesterol components can put you at higher risk for diseases like heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Even if you do have high cholesterol it is not too late to make a change. There are risk factors that are under our control (diet, exercise, obesity, lifestyle choices) and others that are not (heredity, age). Control what you can control and rely on your doctor to help you deal with the rest.
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