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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a natural substance that is made by the liver and some other cells in the human body. It is also found in some food, such as meat, dairy and eggs. Cholesterol is vital for good health; without it human cells will not be able to form properly and the body will not be able to make hormones or vitamin D. Also, the digestive system requires some cholesterol, as without it bile acids will not be able to digest dietary fat. 

However, too much cholesterol is unhealthy. Cholesterol can clog up arteries and lead to serious health problems such as heart disease. When cholesterol is present in blood vessels for a long time it can leave a form of plaque on the walls of the arteries. When this plaque builds up it hardens and a condition called atherosclerosis develops. This is how heart disease begins.

As atherosclerosis develops further the blood vessels cannot carry sufficient blood to the heart and this causes angina, which is often first experienced as a sharp chest pain. In the most extreme cases a buildup of plaque can cause blood clots to block an artery completely and the result is a heart attack.

What causes it?

There are several types of cholesterol and each is created in a different way. The cholesterol that affects our health is called low-density lipoprotein (LDL); this type causes the buildup of plaque on the artery walls. This is often called “bad cholesterol”.

In contrast we also have high-density lipoprotein (HDL). This helps to remove the LDL, so called “good cholesterol”. There is also very low-density lipoprotein and triglycerides. Triglycerides are formed from sugars and fats when we eat too much food and are eventually stored as fat.

The main factor that leads to the formation of bad cholesterol is diet. Eating saturated fat increases cholesterol levels. Being overweight also causes an increase. As we grow older cholesterol levels rise. For women there is a rapid rise during the menopause.

Other factors that increase cholesterol are smoking, diabetes and genetic factors. People with diabetes are at a much higher risk of heart disease than those without.

Checking your cholesterol levels

It is recommended that everybody get a cholesterol check at the age of 20 years and then every five years thereafter. Both total cholesterol and LDL levels can be checked.

A healthy total cholesterol level is one that is below 200 mg/dL. Levels over 240 mg/dL are considered to be high and levels between 200 and 240 mg/dL are borderline high, meaning that there is a risk but some people may still be healthy.

A healthy LDL cholesterol level is below 130 mg/dL, however, those who are at risk of heart disease need to maintain lower levels. For individuals at risk of heart disease LDL cholesterol should be maintained below 100 mg/dL, and those who are classified as being at very high risk of heart disease should maintain a level below 70 mg/dL.

Natural ways to lower cholesterol

There are many natural ways to lower cholesterol. The best way for many people is to exercise. When we do aerobic exercise cholesterol levels are reduced.

Research has shown that for every hour of moderate exercise completed by women there is a reduction of LDL cholesterol of 4mg per deciliter. The Heart Foundation recommends that everybody complete at least 30-minutes of exercise every day to help manage cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Changing your diet is a very important natural way to reduce cholesterol. A reduction in saturated fat, especially animal fats and dairy, is recommended. Replacing red meat and fatty cheese with oily fish, poultry and skimmed milks is highly recommended.

Contrary to popular belief eggs are relatively safe. Studies have shown that people who consume up to six eggs a week show no signs of raised cholesterol. Eggs contain a combination of healthy fats, protein and vitamins too which means that they should form part of a healthy diet.

Drugs and medical treatments

If a change in diet and more exercise does not result in a drop in levels there are several drugs that can help. Statins are the most commonly prescribed drug and although there have been some warnings of serious side effects they are still the best medication available.

Some newer treatments such as the use of monoclonal antibodies have shown promising signs that they can lower LDL levels significantly.

Ezetimibe is sometimes used to block the absorption of cholesterol from food and bile juices. This can be taken alongside statins.

Cholesterol is a serious problem for many people, and organizations like Vince and Associates are at the forefront of clinical research related to its control.

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