Everyone knows that cholesterol is a major factor in heart health and that having high cholesterol is bad, but what is cholesterol really? Cholesterol is a type of organic molecule found in the body, and it helps us produce some of the various hormones and vitamins that the body needs to operate.
It’s produced by cells within your body and can act as a hormone. Contrary to the common conception that cholesterol is a bad thing, it’s actually a necessary component of all animal life! It allows fluidity within cell membranes while at the same time maintaining their structure, so without it we’d all be in big trouble. That being said, different ‘types’ of cholesterol have different effects, and like most things it can have negative health impacts if levels deviate outside the healthy range.
Cholesterol in Food
As we all know cholesterol levels can in part be controlled through diet. This is because certain foods coming from animal sources can contain high levels of cholesterol. Dairy foods and cheeses, as well as chicken, fish, beef and eggs all contain relatively high levels of cholesterol. Cholesterol can even be found in human breast milk! Because cholesterol is an important component to animal life, significant levels are generally not found in plant matter.
Cholesterol in the Blood
In addition to consuming cholesterol in our foods, our bodies produce it as well. Cholesterol is produced in the liver and from there circulates through the body via our blood stream.
How do people develop high cholesterol?
While there are a number of factors, genetics seems to be the largest single contributing factor in determining which people develop high cholesterol. Studies have shown a high correlation between family history and high levels of cholesterol in humans. Diets high in saturated and trans fats, high rates of alcohol consumption, under active thyroid issues and kidney issues can also be significant contributing factors to cholesterol levels.
There are many different foods which are considered to be high in cholesterol and increase cholesterol. This includes butters and hard margarines. It also includes fatty meats like bacon or sausauges. Full fat cheeses, milk and cremas can also increase cholesterol. There's a large number of foods really. It's good to consult a dietician.
LDL (Bad) Cholesterol vs HDL (Good) Cholesterol
LDL cholesterol contributes to a buildup of plaque deposits on the artery walls, thereby increasing blood pressure by ‘clogging’ the arteries and reducing their flexibility. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. LDL cholesterol has been scientifically linked to heart disease and high blood pressure, and can significantly increase the odds of heart attack and stroke.
HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, works to protect the arteries and has a negative correlation with cardiovascular health. HDL cholesterol actually acts to reduce the buildup of LDL cholesterol within the arteries, carrying it back through the blood to the liver.
Lowering Your Cholesterol
The first thing doctors usually recommend to lower LDL cholesterol is dietary changes. Reducing the consumption of foods high in trans and saturated fats can have a marked impact on cholesterol levels in the blood. Replacing problem foods such as fatty red meat with leaner meats like poultry and fish, and replacing full fat dairy products with skim can have serious health benefits to people with high LDL cholesterol levels. Also, high fiber foods such as leafy greens and other vegetables have been shown to reduce LDL levels. Lastly, unsaturated fats coming from sources like seeds, nuts, and natural oils can also have a positive impact on your cholesterol levels.
Beyond changing your diet, using commonly prescribed medications or more revolutionary treatments like PCSK9 Inhibitors can drastically reduce your LDL levels.