You’ve probably heard about the importance of lowering your cholesterol. Maybe you read about it in the news, or your doctor mentioned it at a checkup. It’s a topic that springs up all the time and often leaves people with more questions than answers.
So what exactly is cholesterol, and how does it impact your health? And what can you do to lower your cholesterol levels or stop them from getting too high in the first place?
These are the questions we’re answering today. So if you want the full story on how to lower cholesterol, this is the article for you.
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What is cholesterol?
- The food you eat
- Natural production by your liver
Despite the bad press, cholesterol isn’t unhealthy in itself. Your body needs it for building cell membranes and creating hormones, amongst other vital processes.ref2
However, health problems can start to arise when the cholesterol levels in your blood get too high.
What does high cholesterol mean?
Before answering that question, let’s learn a little more about how cholesterol moves around your body.
If you’ve ever made a salad dressing, you’ll know that fat and water do not mix. The same is true of cholesterol and your blood.
To help cholesterol mix with blood, your liver produces molecules called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins bind to cholesterol so your blood can transport it around your body.ref2
Your liver produces 2 types of lipoprotein:ref2
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL), nicknamed “good cholesterol.”
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad cholesterol.” LDLs are the type that can lead to health problems.
Doctors measure cholesterol levels in milligrams per 10 liters of blood, or mg/dL. You should aim to have a total cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL.ref3
Levels between 200-239 mg/dL are known as ‘borderline,’ which means they’re close to being too high.ref3
When the total cholesterol levels in your blood go above 240mg/dL, you may be diagnosed with high cholesterol.ref3
Why is it important to lower cholesterol if your levels are too high?
High levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to fatty build-ups in the walls of your arteries.ref4 Over time, these can turn into hard plaques, which narrow your arteries and make it difficult for blood to flow through.ref5
- Heart attack
- Chronic kidney disease
Managing your cholesterol levels can help reduce your risk of developing these conditions.
If you have a family history of high cholesterol or cardiovascular disease, it’s even more important you maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
How to lower cholesterol?
You can lower your LDL cholesterol levels by making healthier choices in your day-to-day life.
The best ways to lower cholesterol levels naturally are:ref7,ref8
- Consuming less saturated fats, which can lead to high LDL cholesterol levels
- Cutting down on red meats, like beef, pork, lamb, and goat
- Choosing foods that help lower your cholesterol, like fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods
- Getting active, aiming for 150 minutes of exercise a week
- Quitting or avoiding smoking
- Limiting your alcohol consumption
You might have heard that avoiding high-cholesterol foods will help lower your levels. However, eating cholesterol doesn’t affect the levels in your blood as much as saturated fats. Some high-cholesterol foods, like eggs and full-fat yogurt, are highly nutritious and healthy as part of a balanced diet.ref7
If you already have cardiovascular disease or are at risk of high cholesterol, a doctor may prescribe medications called statins to help you achieve healthy cholesterol levels.ref7
It’s important to know that having high cholesterol may not cause any symptoms for a long time.ref2 That’s why it’s critical to prevent your cholesterol levels from getting too high in the first place.
What can I do to prevent high cholesterol?
Understanding the risks and following the healthy lifestyle steps we outlined in the previous section will help you keep your cholesterol levels under control.
It’s also a good idea to get your cholesterol levels checked every 5 years from the age of 20.ref9 Speak to your doctor about getting a test.
Cholesterol isn’t the enemy. But making sure your levels do not get too high is essential for a healthy, happy life.
So stay active, eat healthy foods, and make sure you regularly check your blood cholesterol levels.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What can cause high cholesterol?
The leading causes of high cholesterol are eating foods high in saturated fats, not exercising, a family history of high cholesterol, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
Q: How can I test my cholesterol level?
To test your cholesterol levels, you'll need a blood test.
Q: Where can I get tested?
Most doctors can check your cholesterol levels for you.
Q: When do I need to see a doctor?
You should check your cholesterol levels every 5 years from the age of 20. If you are over 40, overweight, or have a family history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease, make sure to get checked more often.
Q: Does high cholesterol run in families?
Yes, high cholesterol that runs in the family is a genetic condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia. This condition puts you at high risk of heart disease from an early age.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2021. “About High Blood Cholesterol”. Accessed on 18 February 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2021. “Cholesterol Myths and Facts”. Accessed on 18 February 2022.
American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). "Goals for Lowering Your Cholesterol". Accessed on 18 February 2022.
British Heart Foundation. "High Cholesterol - Causes, Symptoms & Treatments". Accessed on 18 February 2022.
American Heart Association 2020. "Atherosclerosis". Accessed on 18 February 2022.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) . "Atherosclerosis". Accessed on 18 February 2022.
NHS 2021. "Lower your cholesterol". Accessed on 18 February 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2021. “Preventing High Cholesterol”. Accessed on 18 February 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2020. “Getting Your Cholesterol Checked”. Accessed on 18 February 2022.