Cholesterol is a type of lipid. It’s a waxy, fat-like substance that your liver produces naturally. It’s vital for the formation of cell membranes, certain hormones, and vitamin D.
Cholesterol doesn’t dissolve in water, so it can’t travel through your blood on its own. To help transport cholesterol, your liver produces lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are particles made from fat and protein. They carry cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of lipid) through your bloodstream. The two major forms of lipoprotein are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
According to Dr. Gabriel Omonaiye, “If your blood contains too much LDL cholesterol (cholesterol carried by low-density lipoprotein), it’s known as high cholesterol. When left untreated, high cholesterol can lead to many health problems, including heart attack or stroke.”
High cholesterol typically causes no symptoms. That’s why it’s important to get your cholesterol levels checked on a regular basis. You should know what cholesterol levels are recommended for your age.
LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol”
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often called “bad cholesterol.” It carries cholesterol to your arteries. If your levels of LDL cholesterol are too high, it can build up on the walls of your arteries. The buildup is also known as cholesterol plaque. This plaque can narrow your arteries, limit your blood flow, and raise your risk of blood clots. If a blood clot blocks an artery in your heart or brain, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
HDL cholesterol, or “good cholesterol”
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is sometimes called “good cholesterol.” It helps return LDL cholesterol to your liver to be removed from your body. This helps prevent cholesterol plaque from building up in your arteries.
When you have healthy levels of HDL cholesterol, it can help lower your risk of blood clots, heart disease, and stroke.
Getting your cholesterol levels checked
If you’re age 20 years or older, it is recommended that you get your cholesterol levels checked at least once every four to six years. If you have a history of high cholesterol or other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, your doctor may encourage you get your cholesterol levels tested more often.
Your doctor can use a lipid panel to measure your total cholesterol level, as well your LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. Your total cholesterol level is the overall amount of cholesterol in your blood. It includes LDL and HDL cholesterol.
If your levels of total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol are too high, your doctor will diagnose you with high cholesterol. High cholesterol is especially dangerous when your LDL levels are too high and your HDL levels are too low.
High cholesterol symptoms
In most cases, high cholesterol is a “silent” problem. It typically doesn’t cause any symptoms. Many people don’t even realize they have high cholesterol until they develop serious complications, such as a heart attack or stroke.
That’s why routine cholesterol screening is important. If you’re age 20 years or older, ask your doctor if you should have routine cholesterol screening.
Causes of high cholesterol
Eating too many foods that are high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats may increase your risk of developing high cholesterol. Other lifestyle factors can also contribute to high cholesterol. These factors include inactivity and smoking.
Your genetics can also affect your chances of developing high cholesterol. Genes are passed down from parents to children. Certain genes instruct your body on how to process cholesterol and fats. If your parents have high cholesterol, you’re at higher risk of having it too.
Other health conditions, such as diabetes and hypothyroidism may also increase your risk of developing high cholesterol and related complications.
Risk factors for high cholesterol
You may be at a higher risk of developing high cholesterol if you are overweight or obese, eat an unhealthy diet, don’t exercise regularly, smoke tobacco products, have a family history of high cholesterol or have diabetes, kidney disease or hypothyroidism. People of all ages, genders, and ethnicities can have high cholesterol.
Complications of high cholesterol
If left untreated, high cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in your arteries. Over time, this plaque can narrow your arteries. This condition is known as atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a serious condition. It can limit the flow of blood through your arteries. It also raises your risk of developing dangerous blood clots.
Atherosclerosis can result in many life-threatening complications, such as stroke, heart attack, angina (chest pain), high blood pressure and chronic kidney disease. High cholesterol can also create a bile imbalance, raising your risk of gallstones.
How to diagnose high cholesterol
To measure your cholesterol levels, your doctor will use a simple blood test. It’s known as a lipid panel. They can use it to assess your levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. To conduct this test, your doctor or other healthcare professional will take a sample of your blood. They will send this sample to a lab for analysis. When your test results become available, they will let you know if your cholesterol or triglyceride levels are too high. To prepare for this test, your doctor may ask you to avoid eating or drinking anything for at least 12 hours beforehand.
How to lower cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to help lower it. For instance, they may recommend changes to your diet, exercise habits, or other aspects of your daily routine. If you smoke tobacco products, they will likely advise you to quit.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications or other treatments to help lower your cholesterol levels. In some cases, they may refer you to a specialist for more care.
Lowering cholesterol through diet
To help you achieve and maintain healthy cholesterol levels, your doctor may recommend changes to your diet.
For example, they may advise you to limit your intake of foods that are high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats, choose lean sources of protein, such as chicken, fish, and legumes, eat a wide variety of high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, opt for baked, broiled, steamed, grilled, and roasted foods instead of fried foods and avoid fast food and junk food.
Foods that are high in cholesterol, saturated fats, or trans fats include red meat, organ meats, egg yolks, and high-fat dairy products, processed foods made with cocoa butter, palm oil, or coconut oil, deep fried foods, such as potato chips, onion rings, and fried chicken, and certain baked goods, such as some cookies and muffins Eating fish and other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids may also help lower your LDL levels. For example, salmon, mackerel, and herring are rich sources of omega-3s.