What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a lipid (fat-like substance) naturally produced by your liver. It is essential for the production of certain hormones, vitamin D and cell membranes. It is not water soluble and can’t travel through blood. Your body uses lipoproteins to transfer cholesterol.

There are two types of cholesterol

LDL – cholesterol carried by low-density lipoproteins.

HDL – cholesterol carried by high-density lipoproteins.

If the level of LDL cholesterol becomes high in your blood it is considered as high cholesterol. If not treated, high cholesterol can lead to many health problems, including heart attack or stroke.

LDL cholesterol

LDL lipoproteins are also called as bad cholesterol as these carry your cholesterol to arteries and this builds up on their walls leading to plaque formation. This results in blocking the arteries and getting you at a risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

According to CDC, more than one-third of the American adults have elevated levels of LDL cholesterol.

HDL cholesterol

HDL lipoproteins are also called good cholesterol as it helps return the LDL cholesterol back to your liver so that it can be removed from your body, thus preventing the formation of plaque and protecting you from the risk of heart diseases.

Healthy levels of HDL are good for your body as they defend you from high cholesterol levels and risk of blood clots or stroke.

Triglycerides

Another type of lipid is the triglycerides. These are different from cholesterol. Triglycerides help to provide the body with energy. Your body usually convert the calories you intake into triglycerides and reserves them in the fat cells. Later it converts them to energy when needed.

Causes of high cholesterol

The risk of getting high cholesterol levels can be increased by eating foods rich in saturated fats and trans fats. Other factors also contribute in the cholesterol levels. Some of these factors include smoking and lack of physical activity.

Certain genes can also act as the contributors in cholesterol levels. If your parents have had high cholesterol levels, these genes may have also passed in you and you may also be at risk of high cholesterol. High fat levels can result in high cholesterol.

Another type of high cholesterol is the familial hypercholesterolemia. Although it’s a rare genetic disorder, it accumulates the LDL in your body. National Human Genome Research Institute says that most of the adults having familial hypercholesterolemia have total cholesterol levels above 300 mg/dL and LDL levels above 200 mg/dL.

Some other diseases such as hypothyroidism and diabetes have also been seen to increase the risk of other complications and high cholesterol levels.

Risk factors for high cholesterol

There are many risk factors that can trigger the risk of developing hypercholesterolemia in humans. These are as follows:

  • Obesity or being overweight can increase the chances of having high cholesterol levels.
  • Unhealthy diet containing high amounts of saturated and trans fat can increase cholesterol.
  • Lack of physical activity or not exercising regularly can also be a risk factor.
  • Smoking tobacco products.
  • A family history of high cholesterol.
  • Having other diseases like diabetes, kidney disease, or hypothyroidism.

Symptoms of High cholesterol

High cholesterol is a silent problem in most of the cases. Most of the people do not even realize that they have developed this problem until they get complications like stroke or heart attack. That is why routine cholesterol screening can help you diagnose if you are developing high cholesterol.

Diagnosis for high cholesterol levels

American Heart Association recommends to get checked for cholesterol levels every four or six years if you are 20 years or above. You should get tested more often if you have a history of high cholesterol.

Your doctor can measure your cholesterol levels as well as triglyceride levels by using a lipid panel. If the doctor finds that your total cholesterol in blood is high, he will diagnose you with high cholesterol.

Normal cholesterol levels

Your body needs a healthy level of HDL and some LDL for normal functioning. The risk arises if your LDL becomes higher than normal.

The American College of Cardiologists (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) developed new guidelines for the treatment of high cholesterol.

Under these new guidelines, if your LDL is greater than 189 mg/dL, your cholesterol is high and you need to take medication for it.

Cholesterol levels chart

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute classify cholesterol levels (mg/dL) as follows:

Acceptable – if your total cholesterol is lower than 170, LDL is lower than 110 and HDL is higher than 45.

Borderline – if your total cholesterol is in the range of 170-199, LDL is in the range of 110-129 and HDL is in the range of 40-45.

High – if your total cholesterol is 200 or above and LDL is higher than 130.

Low – if your HDL cholesterol is lower than 40.

Treatment

Medications

Various therapeutic agents are available in market to lower your cholesterol levels. The most commonly used group of medications for this purpose is the ‘Statins’. These agents lower your cholesterol by blocking its production in the liver.

Some of the statins include:

Your doctor may also prescribe some other medications for lowering your cholesterol levels, such as:

  • Bile acid resins or sequesterants, such as colesevalam, colestipol, or cholestyramine
  • Cholesterol absorption inhibitors, such as ezetimibe
  • Niacin

Some other products are available which contain a combination of drugs that help to reduce your body’s absorption of cholesterol from foods and decrease your liver’s production of cholesterol, such as a combination of ezetimibe and simvastatin (Vytorin).

Prevention

Although the cholesterol that is related with genetic factors cannot be controlled but there are many lifestyle modifications that can prevent other causes of cholesterol.

You can lower your risk of developing high cholesterol by some of these lifestyle changes:

  • Eat a nutrient and fiber rich diet that does not contain high amount of animal fats or cholesterol.
  • Avoid smoking and reduce your alcohol consumption.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and increase your physical activity.
  • Exercise regularly.