Understanding the Risks of High Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance that the body requires in moderate amounts. This natural nutrient is in the cell walls of the brain, muscles, skin, nerves, liver, heart, and intestines. Find out about signs of high cholesterol, ways to help lower cholesterol, and the difference between HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
High Cholesterol Overview
Your body uses cholesterol to produce vitamin D, several hormones, and digestive bile acids. If you have too much cholesterol in your bloodstream, the excess gets deposited in your coronary (heart) arteries, the carotid (neck) arteries, and the peripheral (leg) arteries. Cholesterol deposits form plaque that blocks and narrows these arteries.
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is caused when fat and cholesterol is deposited in the arteries. The heart is a muscle that needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to function normally. When the vessels that supply the heart are compromised, the heart muscle does not receive adequate oxygen. This could lead to a heart attack. Also, with carotid artery disease, the brain does not get adequate oxygen. When this happens, stroke could occur. When the peripheral arteries become blocked, leg pain and circulation problems occur.
Lipid Profile Testing
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that screenings involve the lipid profile test. This test checks for four kinds of cholesterol: total cholesterol (TC), high density lipoprotein (HDL), low density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglycerides (TG). The LDL is the "bad" cholesterol, so you want that level to be low. The HDL is the "good" cholesterol, so you want that level to be high. Also, TC and TB levels should be low. The following table explains these findings.
|Type of Cholesterol||Good||Borderline||High|
|TC||Less than 200||200 to 239||240 or higher|
|HDL||Greater than 60||Women 50 to 60
Men 40 to 60
|Women less than 50
Men less than 40
|LDL||Less than 100||100 to 160||Greater than 160|
|TG||Less than 150||150 to 200||Greater than 200|
High cholesterol is considered a risk factor for other conditions, and alone, it does not produce symptoms. The National Cholesterol Education Program suggests that everyone older than 20 years should have a cholesterol test at least every five years.
If you have blockages of the leg arteries, certain signs and symptoms could occur. These include pain with walking (claudication), muscle fatigue, and cramps. When the carotid arteries are blocked, you could experience a stroke. Chest pain occurs when the coronary arteries are blocked.
People at Risk for High Cholesterol
People who eat a diet high in trans and saturated fats are at risk for high cholesterol. Also, those who do not exercise are also at risk. High cholesterol increases with age. Causes of this condition include:
- Heredity – Your genes influences how your body metabolizes LDL cholesterol.
- Weight – Excessive weight increases LDL cholesterol.
- Age and Sex – Women who go through menopause are at risk for high cholesterol. Men and women over the age of 45 years are at increased risk.
- Alcohol Use – People who drink around 1 to 2 drinks each day have increased triglyceride levels.
- Stress – Mental stress raises blood cholesterol levels.
Ways to Help Lower Cholesterol
While there are certain risk factors you cannot modify (such as your genes), there are some that you can adjust to prevent high cholesterol or lower your current blood levels. Also, there are ways that you can lower cholesterol. These measures include:
- Get More Exercise – Regular physical activity lowers TG and raises HDL levels.
- Avoid Alcohol – Too much alcohol damages the heart muscle and liver, raises TG levels, and elevates blood pressure.
- Lose Weight – Because obesity contributes to high cholesterol, start on a healthy diet and exercise plan.
- Quit Smoking – Smoking narrows the blood vessels and contributes to heart disease.
- Avoid Certain Dietary Fats – Your total fat intake should be less than 30% of your daily caloric needs. Cut out saturated and trans fats and choose polyunsaturated ones (canola oil, olive oil, and vegetable oil).
- Take Prescribed Medications – If you cannot lower your cholesterol on your own, see a doctor about taking prescription drugs. These include statins, bile acid sequestrants, and cholesterol absorption inhibitors.
- Eat More Fiber – Studies show that eating a diet high in fiber lowers cholesterol. Fiber acts as a sponge to absorb cholesterol in the digestive tract and remove it from the body. Good sources include oats, dried beans, and whole grain cereals.
- Eat More Fish – Fish oil helps lower cholesterol with omega 3 fatty acids. Good sources include salmon, tuna, and mackerel.
- Try Green Tea – As a healthy alternative to sugary sodas and sweet beverages, drink green tea. This contains compounds known to lower cholesterol.
- Go Nuts – Research shows that regular consumption of nuts can modestly lower cholesterol. Avoid nuts that are high in calories. Choose almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts.
Citkowitz E of emedicine.com (2013). Familial Hypercholesterolemia. Retrieved from:
Singh VN of emedicine.com (2013). Low HDL Cholesterol. Retrieved from: