Cholesterol is a type of fat that exists in your blood, and the higher levels of it that you have increases your risk for developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
So what… you might say?
The amount of atherosclerosis in your blood vessels is directly related to your risk of heart attack or stroke. Other risk factors include age, male sex, diabetes, tobacco use, exercise, and genetic factors.
What about those genetic factors?
Well, some people are naturally predisposed to have high levels of the bad cholesterol, called low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The greater amounts of LDL promote the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, which can eventually rupture causing a heart attack or stroke.
Didn’t you say there was something called “good cholesterol”?
Yes there is. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are another component of the fats in your blood; there are many others but it seems HDL is actually heart protective. It is thought that higher levels of HDL in your blood actually remove the “bad” or LDL cholesterol from atherosclerotic plaques and return them to the liver to be reprocessed.
I just don’t want to have a heart attack or stroke!
There are several things you can do to improve your cholesterol profile (the ratio of “good” to “bad” cholesterol):
- Raise the “good” HDL by exercising, losing weight, quitting smoking, and only consuming a moderate (1-2 drinks per day) amount of alcohol.
- Eating right can also raise the protective amounts of HDL in your blood. Reducing the amount of trans-fatty acids (TFA) will help raise your HDL. These include margarines, baked goods (such as doughnuts, cookies and cakes) and "partially hydrogenated vegetable oils." The FDA now requires all food labels to provide TFA information.
- Eat a diet with plenty of fiber and use “healthy oils” such as canola, olive, corn and sunflower.
I can’t eat like that all the time!
Several powerful drugs (such as statins or niacin) are at your physician’s disposal to help raise your good cholesterol and/or lower your bad cholesterol. In fact, recent studies have even shown that intense lowering of “bad” cholesterol in patients who have already had a heart attack or stroke have a reduced risk of death. These drugs are generally safe and have rare and well-described side effects that usually go away when the medications are stopped.
In addition to modifying your diet and exercise program, talk to your doctor about testing and treating your cholesterol profile. There is plenty that can be done, which may save your life!