Despite the fact that blood cholesterol is usually accused of being the enemy of good health, this fatty substance is absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of the human body. Not only is it essential in the production of cell membranes, it also plays a major role in a number of metabolic reactions. The trouble is that too much cholesterol in the blood can have very serious repercussions on the entire system. And with the high-fat diet and generalized sedentariness of the western lifestyle, the conditions are ideal for developing cholesterol problems.
What are blood lipids? Blood is composed of various matters, including fatty substances that are called blood lipids. The main fatty substances present in the blood are triglycerides and cholesterol. The medical term “dyslipidemias” is used to describe cholesterol problems that are caused by excessive amounts of LDL cholesterol or triglycerides, insufficient amounts of HDL cholesterol, or a combination of these anomalies.
Total cholesterol Total cholesterol is the sum of all of the various types of cholesterol in the blood. It is calculated as a whole, regardless of type. Total cholesterol is used to calculate a ratio, called the “total cholesterol : HDL-C ratio”. This ratio is useful to help determine an individual’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
LDL cholesterol Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, is often called “bad” cholesterol. When there is too much of it in the blood, it tends to stick to the artery walls, consequently narrowing and hardening them. This is a condition called atherosclerosis.
HDL cholesterol High-density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol, is also known as “good” cholesterol. It is composed of small but very dense particles that act as cleaners by carrying the excess of “bad” cholesterol present in the blood and artery walls back to the liver for excretion.
Triglycerides Triglycerides are another type of fatty substances found in the blood. And although they also likely contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, their actual role is still not well defined.
Why should we worry about blood lipids? More often than not, individuals who have too much cholesterol or triglycerides in the blood do not present any symptoms, and the only way to detect this anomaly is with a blood test. So, why should we worry about it? Whether it is high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, or a total cholesterol: HDL ratio that is too high, all are associated with an individual’s increased risk of suffering from a number of cardiovascular diseases.
When there is an excess amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood, it accumulates in the arteries (in plaque) and causes them to narrow and harden. And there begins a sequence of events. Hard and narrow arteries will obstruct blood flow and cause an individual to experience symptoms such as chest pain for example, and too much cholesterol in the leg arteries can cause pain during effort. Moreover, when a piece of cholesterol plaque detaches from the arterial walls, it can travel through the bloodstream and cause a heart attack or a cerebrovascular accident, also known as a stroke. Needless to say, these events have very serious consequences that can affect an individual’s quality of life in the long-term.
There are other contributing risk factors when it comes to cardiovascular diseases. The main ones are: smoking; obesity; sedentariness; unhealthy eating habits; hypertension; diabetes; or a family history of cardiovascular diseases before the age of 55. The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease.
How can we lower blood lipid levels? Lifestyle habits can have a considerable impact on cholesterol levels. Consequently, they can help prevent the complications that are linked to unacceptably high levels. Here are a few good habits you can adopt to help lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol and increase your “good” HDL cholesterol.
- Reach and maintain your healthy body weight, because excess weight actually decreases HDL cholesterol levels. The good news is that your HDL cholesterol levels can increase by 0.01 mmol/L for every 2 pounds you lose. Even though this might seem like an insignificantly small number, it is of great significance for your health!
- Be more active! Regular physical activity, at least 30 minutes on most days of the week, can increase HDL cholesterol by 5% in adults. The types of activities you should choose are those that increase your heart rate such as walking, swimming, running, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or biking for example.
- Choose to eat healthier fats. A healthy diet should include a certain amount of fat, but keep in mind that not all fats are created equal. You should therefore avoid saturated fats as much as you can. These are mainly found in meat and whole milk dairy products. You should favour monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil and canola oil. In addition to having anti-inflammatory properties, these oils are thought to help increase HDL cholesterol. Moreover, eating nuts, fish and other foods containing omega 3 fatty acids regularly could improve the rapport between LDL and HDL cholesterol.
- Limit your food cholesterol intake to a maximum of 300 mg per day, or 200 mg if you are suffering from cardiovascular disease. The most concentrated sources of cholesterol include red meat, egg yolks and whole milk dairy products. You should therefore choose leaner cuts of meat and dairy products that are made with skim milk.
- Choose whole grain products. Whole wheat breads and pasta, as well as brown rice all contribute in improving blood cholesterol results. Oat flakes and wheat flakes are also healthy choices.
- Eat colourful fruits and vegetable in abundance, and learn to cook them in various ways or eat them raw. In addition to being scrumptious, their health benefits are countless.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. A moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with an increase in HDL cholesterol levels. However, the maximum daily consumption recommended is one glass for women and two glasses for men, as anything beyond that will actually cancel out its beneficial effect.
- Stop smoking. Smoking lowers HDL cholesterol levels while increasing the blood’s tendency to coagulate. This dramatically raises one’s risk of suffering from a heart attack.
You should know that for some individuals however, healthy lifestyle habits are simply not enough to reach their optimal blood lipid levels. When this is the case, a physician will prescribe medications to help lower them to acceptable levels. In the long term, these medications can greatly diminish the risk of suffering from heart problems.
It is very important to understand that these medications work silently, without you ever being conscious of the effect they have. To truly visualize and understand their effect, make a habit of asking your physician for the results of your blood tests. You should also understand that cholesterol problems are a chronic problem that can be “controlled”, but never “cured”. This is why you must adhere to your treatment, even when your blood lipid levels return to normal. If you stop taking your medication, you will regress to the starting point surprisingly quickly…
If your blood tests have revealed a cholesterol problem, do not take it lightly! You might not have any symptoms, but cholesterol nevertheless damages your arteries a little bit more each day. Taking charge of your health today will help reduce your risk of suffering from a heart attack or a cardiovascular accident in the future!