What is cholesterol?
Most of the cholesterol in our body is made by our liver from saturated fat in our diet. Some cholesterol also comes from foods such as eggs, meats and dairy products.
Why is a high cholesterol level unhealthy?
While some cholesterol is needed for good health, too much cholesterol in our blood can raise your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
The extra cholesterol in our blood may be stored in your arteries (blood vessels) and cause them to narrow. (This is called atherosclerosis.) Large deposits of cholesterol can completely block an artery, so the blood can’t flow through.
If an artery that supplies blood to your heart becomes blocked, a heart attack can occur. If an artery that supplies blood to your brain becomes blocked, a stroke can occur.
When should I start having my cholesterol level checked?
Men aged 35 and older and women aged 45 and older should have their cholesterol checked periodically. Depending on what your cholesterol level is and what other risk factors for heart disease you have (see the box below), you may need to have it checked more often.
Are there different types of cholesterol?
Cholesterol travels through the blood in different types of packages, called lipoproteins.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) deliver cholesterol to the body. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) remove cholesterol from the bloodstream.
This is why too much LDL cholesterol is bad for the body, while the HDL form is good. It’s the balance between the types of cholesterol that tells you what your cholesterol level means
For example, if your total cholesterol level is high because of a high LDL level, you may be at higher risk of heart disease or stroke. If your total level is high only because of a high HDL level, you’re probably not at higher risk
What can I do to improve my cholesterol level?
What we eat has a substantial impact on cholesterol levels in the blood, but the cholesterol in our diet does not automatically become cholesterol in our blood.
Cholesterol in our diet is only found in food of animal origin, such as meat, dairy and eggs. And though saturated fat and cholesterol often appear together, it is the amount of fat we eat, especially saturated fat, that has a bigger impact on blood cholesterol levels. Refraining from eating foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol will help to lower our blood levels of cholesterol and we can do this by cutting back on whole milk, cheese, butter, meat fat, and poultry skin.
Eating a diet rich in fiber may actually help to lower your blood cholesterol level as well. In particular, soluble fiber appears to help bile acids, which are made up of cholesterol, pass through your system as waste, so your body absorbs less cholesterol. (When increasing your fiber intake, remember to go slowly to give your system time to adjust.)
Here are some good general suggestions for lowering cholesterol
- Eat a fiber rich breakfast such as oatmeal, whole grain muffins, fruit. Read the cereal box nutrition labels. Go for cereals containing 5 grams or more of fiber per serving. Oat bran and rice bran are the most effective.
- Switch to whole grains. Choose whole grain breads, crackers, bagels, muffins, waffles, pancakes.
- Eat legumes (beans) at least three times a week. Try bean soup, cold bean salad, hummus sandwich, black bean dip, toasted soy beans for snacking. Soy protein is especially effective, so be sure to include plenty. Even soymilk, tofu and textured soy protein are good.
- Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. One at breakfast, one veggie (e.g. carrot sticks, tomato slices) and one fruit (e.g. orange sections, apple) at lunch and at dinner, one salad and one cooked vegetable…that makes an easy five!
- Choose whole fruit, skin included, instead of the juice. Juice is the fruit with all the fiber removed.
- Another food in the arsenal against cholesterol is garlic. Cooked or raw garlic both contain compounds that help lower your liver’s production of cholesterol.
- Other good foods include raw onion, salmon, olive oil, almonds, walnuts, avocados (the latter five are all high in fat but most of it is monounsaturated fat that helps to improve cholesterol).
- Eat plenty of foods that contain the natural antioxidants, vitamins A and C. Vitamin C rich foods include:
sweet red peppers
sweet green peppers
Vitamin E rich foods include:
wheat germ oil
- Studies support the claim that a little bit of wine or beer helps cholesterol levels. Binge drinking is not effective, but light to moderate drinking through the week is.
A short summary: Eat foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol, eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and non-fat dairy products. Specific foods known to help lower cholesterol include – soluble fiber, garlic, salmon, vitamin C and E rich foods.
Know the Risks
The following are the most common diseases and illnesses that claim lives, and ways to help prevent them from occurring:
Heart disease accounts for about 40 percent of all deaths among men. Twice as many men die from heart disease as women. In many of these cases, those men could have saved their own lives through minor lifestyle modifications.
- Stop smoking. If you don’t smoke, don’t start!
- Cut your cholesterol by eating a low-cholesterol, high-fiber diet and exercising regularly.
- Keep your blood pressure down by keeping your weight down. Cut back on alcohol and lower your salt intake.
Heart Attack Warning Signs
Often, telltale symptoms will surface before the onset of a heart attack. Awareness of these early warning signs can help you make the decision to seek treatment and may improve your chances of survival, as well as limit damage to the heart should an attack occur. Common early symptoms include:
- mild discomfort or nagging ache in the center of your chest
- recurrent discomfort that feels like indigestion
- more intense chest pain upon exertion, subsiding with rest
- squeezing pain or pressure in the chest
- shortness of breath
- discomfort in the neck, jaw, arm and/or back
- flu-like symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, weakness and sweating
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention.
- Lung, prostate and colon cancers are the three leading causes of cancer deaths. Lifestyle changes can help prevent many cancers.
- Quit smoking
- Limit alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day
- Reduce fat in your diet to less than 30 percent of total calories
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
Stroke is the third leading cause of death and the biggest cause of serious disability in the United States. Men are more likely than women to experience a stroke. Help cut your risk by following these recommendations.
- Quit smoking
- Exercise moderately
- Keep your blood pressure down
Knowing the early warning signs of a stroke and seeking prompt medical treatment can save a life or make the difference between full recovery and permanent disability. The common stroke warning signs are:
- Sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg on one side of the body
- Sudden dimness or loss of vision, particularly in one eye
- Loss of speech, or trouble talking or understanding speech
- Sudden, severe headaches with no known apparent cause
- Unexplained dizziness, unsteadiness or sudden falls, especially along with any of the other listed stroke symptoms
If you experience any of these symptoms you should seek immediate medical care.
Emphysema is one of the most preventable diseases. This and other chronic lung diseases lead to slow deaths for about 50,000 men each year. One simple step can be taken to prevent lung disease:
One may have early signs and symptoms and don’t know it. Knowing the symptoms is important. They include:
- Frequent urination
- Unusual thirst
- Weight loss
- Extreme hunger or fatigue
- Frequent or recurring infections
- Blurred vision
- Numbness or tingling in hands and feet
If you have any of these problems, especially if you have a family history of diabetes, see your health care provider. Keeping your weight down, lowering the fat content of your diet and exercising regularly may help delay or prevent diabetes in adults.
Medicine is an ever-changing science. As new research and clinical experience broaden our knowledge, changes in treatment and drug therapy are required. The author has checked with sources believed to be reliable in his efforts to provide information that is complete and generally in accord with the standards accepted at the time of publication.
Author: Dr. K.B. Mallya