Does the word "cholesterol" automatically create mental images of every bit of cheese and butter you have ever eaten floating through your veins—just waiting for the right time to cause a blockage? In reality, cholesterol, a soft, waxy, fat-like substance is found in our bloodstream and in all of the body's cells. In fact, cholesterol is a necessary part of a healthy body—it plays a role in producing some hormones, is used in the production of cell membranes, and helps in digesting dietary fats.
Although it serves a multitude of vital functions, an overabundance of cholesterol can indicate a health problem. High cholesterol may be the result of heredity, years of poor diet choices, a sedentary lifestyle, and bad habits like smoking and alcohol. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute states that more than 90 million American adults (50 percent of the population) have elevated cholesterol levels which is a leading risk factor for heart disease—the leading killer of both men and women in the United States.
Advances in detecting and treating heart disease over the past few decades have made knowing your cholesterol level the "in thing" to do when it comes to your health, and a simple blood test is all that's necessary. The cholesterol in your body can be separated into two types—"good" cholesterol (HDL or high density lipoprotein) and "bad" cholesterol (LDL or low density lipoprotein). According to the American Heart Association, between one-third and one-fourth of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL and many experts believe that HDL acts to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver where it passes from the body. Some also believe that the HDL removes excess cholesterol from plaque in the arteries, helping to slow buildup. An excess of LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream can slowly build up along the inner walls of the arteries, which feed the heart and brain. Along with other substances, the cholesterol can form plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can clog those arteries. If a clot forms and blocks an artery narrowed by plaque, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Triglycerides are another form of fat present in your blood that your physician will likely monitor. Triglycerides come from the food you eat but are also produced by your own body. Those suffering from diabetes or obesity are likely to have high triglyceride levels.
Cholesterol gets into your body in two ways. Your body produces some cholesterol on its own. The rest comes from eating animal products such as whole milk, butter, cheese, eggs, meats, fish, and poultry. Plant-based foods (grains, fruits, and vegetables) have no cholesterol to contribute to your body. Those foods, however, may contain trans fats, which cause the body to produce more cholesterol, as do foods with saturated fats.
The American Heart Association provides the following guidelines and warnings for cholesterol levels (cholesterol is measured in micrograms per deciliter [mg/dL])
Total Blood Cholesterol
The American Heart Association notes that an HDL level below 40 mg/dL is considered low and a low HDL level indicates a high risk for heart disease. If your HDL level is low, you can help raise it by:
For those experiencing high cholesterol levels without a family history of heart disease, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states physicians often prescribe a program of diet, exercise, and weight loss to lower cholesterol levels. The FDA references the National Cholesterol Education Program guidelines, which suggest a minimum six-month program of reduced dietary saturated fat and cholesterol combined with physical activity and weight control as the primary treatment before resorting to medication. In cases where diet and exercise are not enough to lower levels or where genetics play a greater role, cholesterol-lowering drugs, particularly those in the "statin" family, may be prescribed. The National Cholesterol Education Program estimates that some 9 million Americans are treated with some form of cholesterol lowering drug therapy.
Get to know your body. Have your cholesterol levels checked. Then, follow your physician's advice on diet and exercise. Heart disease is a national epidemic but it is one aspect of your health that you can control.
As always, please consult your family physician concerning any matters involving your family's health and follow your doctor's guidance when starting a new exercise or diet regimen.
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