For most of our lives we have been taught to think of cholesterol as a bad thing, an enemy to our long-term health and happiness. Too much cholesterol in our bodies, we are told, makes us a walking time bomb, and we don't even feel it. Well, yes, too high a level of cholesterol in your body can be hazardous to your health, specifically, your heart health, but let's take a deeper dive on the subject and see exactly what we are dealing with, and perhaps take some of the fear out of this touchy subject. Oh, yeah, almost forgot: September is National Cholesterol Education Month, so what better time to stop for a bit and take a look at what we're dealing with? First things first – your body needs some cholesterol, just not too much of it. The same thing can be said for, say, sugar, iron, and so on and so forth. Note that in the case of cholesterol, your body is already producing it, regardless of what your nutritional (or non-nutritional) diet looks like. So keep that in mind – if your body wasn't supposed to have any cholesterol, it wouldn't be producing it, right?
Two Types of CholesterolThere are two types of cholesterol, and they are defined by which type of lipoprotein carries them throughout your body. That's right; cholesterol is transported through your body by lipoproteins and not via your bloodstream. One is low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which carries the bad cholesterol – the kind you don't want gumming up the works. The other is high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is the good stuff – the stuff you actually want a higher level of. If you are not having your cholesterol checked at least once a year – a routine blood test during your annual physical (you do get one, right?) does the trick – you should seriously reconsider. When it comes to knowing your numbers, things like cholesterol level and blood pressure are at the top of the list of things you must be in tune with. Total cholesterol readings of under 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are generally considered healthy; 200-239 considered borderline high; 240-plus is high, period. If in either of those latter two categories, you can expect your physician to put you on a regimen of exercise, diet change, and possibly prescription medications to get that number down (and, dang it, them down). Keep in mind, though, that the total cholesterol reading is not the only number you should be concerned with. Even a total number of, say, 190, might consist of an elevated LDL level and/or a too-low HDL, either of which throws your body out of whack, sounding a yellow alert and putting you in need of that same self/physician-intervention described above. Your LDL reading, by itself, should be under 100, while your HDL should be 60 and above. By the way, the total cholesterol reading isn't just adding the LDL and HDL numbers together; there's a formula followed in calculating the number; there's also a desired ratio of LDL and HDL that enters into the equation. You can take that up with your physician. Please do so.
Why Too High a Cholesterol Level Is a ConcernAn excess of cholesterol in your body – or more specifically, LDL (bad) cholesterol – can result in the buildup of plaque in your arteries, obstructing the flow of blood to your heart, per webmd.com. The more the buildup, the more of an obstruction the plaque becomes. That's when you run the risk of angina (chest pain), and once there is an actual blockage, a heart attack is imminent. Perhaps you ask, why then, if high cholesterol is such a concern, does our body have any of it in the first place? Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body, and it's there because it serves a number of important, natural roles, per medicalnewstoday.com. Such as helping in the digestion of consumed foods, manufacturing hormones, and, interestingly enough, producing vitamin D (which, otherwise, we have to get mostly from supplements, food we eat and exposure to the sun). And, as you might have envisioned, cholesterol, an oil-based substance, is waxy and fat-like in appearance. It's not what you would call a pretty sight, but . . . just in case you were wondering. Let's move on.
Foods that Are Good for CholesterolPer the American Heart Association, your liver manufactures all the cholesterol you will ever need. The other source is what you eat in terms of foods derived from animals. Hint: meat (beef), poultry (chicken), and full-fat dairy products (whole milk) all contain dietary cholesterol – so be careful how much of that you consume. Such foods are high in saturated and trans-fat, which cause your liver to manufacture more cholesterol than normal, and that's where you start treading into choppy waters in terms of heart health. Following are some foods you might want to include on your menu as you take the fight to that bad cholesterol, per webmd.com and Harvard Health via medicalnewstoday.com:
- Barley (and other whole grains)
- Fruits (focus on apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus)
A Few Other Tips about Cholesterol
- Reminder: See your doctor, get your cholesterol checked, and, depending on the results, develop a plan for proper eating and healthy exercise (and medications, if he or she deems it necessary).
- If you smoke, stop. Smoking lowers your good cholesterol, per webmd.com.
- Exercise. Brisk walking; jogging; swimming, biking, etc. A half-hour a day three or four times a week is a good start, but under the guidance of a health-care professional to get you started.
- Medications. Take them, if prescribed. Yes, it's a great goal to eventually get off them, but let the doctor determine that. Meanwhile, follow your prescription – don't skip/skimp.