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Cholesterol: What it Does to Your Body

Have you ever heard that your body needs cholesterol? Well, it’s true. Cholesterol is a type of fat that is incorporated into cell membranes to make them more flexible. Without cholesterol, cell membranes would be too stiff to serve their functions, and cells would die. No wonder our bodies actually make cholesterol! And, since our bodies also get cholesterol from the foods we eat, it is important to know what foods contain cholesterol and how much.

Cholesterol benefits

While cholesterol in the right amounts is good, too much cholesterol can cause unhealthy changes in your blood vessels, setting the stage for heart disease.

According to the American Heart Association, a cholesterol level of 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) is associated with the lowest risk of heart disease. Levels above 300 mg/dl are associated with the highest risk. Between 40 and 50 percent of Americans over age 20 have higher levels.

Cholesterol types

There are two types of cholesterol: LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol. LDL-C carries fats and cholesterol around the body, delivering it to cells and tissues as needed.

However, when there is too much cholesterol, LDL-C stays in the bloodstream and, eventually, leaves the cholesterol on the walls of your arteries. This cholesterol accumulates with other molecules, like fats, calcium and clotting factors, to form plaques.

The formation of these plaques is called artherosclerosis. Plaques make blood vessels stiffer and narrower, which decreases blood flow, and can increase the risk of blood clots. If a blood clot forms, there is a larger chance it will get stuck in a narrowed artery and cause a stroke or heart attack.

For these reasons, recommendations to lower cholesterol focus mostly on lowering LDL-C.

HDL-C is thought to be “good” because it carries excess fats and cholesterol in the blood away from arteries to the liver to be removed. HDL-C may also protect arteries in other ways, like preventing blood clots and decreasing plaque size. Since HDL-C is the healthy form of cholesterol, you should take steps to raise your HDL-C levels, which will also lower your LDL-C levels.

Lowering Cholesterol

Most adults have heard that they should lower their cholesterol. Actually, it is the HDL-to-LDL ratio that should be managed. An exact ratio that defines disease risk has not yet been determined, but you should aim to increase your ratio as much as possible. The American Heart Association  and the Mayo Clinic are two online sources for information on how to raise your HDL-C levels and lower your LDL-C levels. With all the information out there, it is easy to get overwhelmed. But, if you just take one step at a time, being healthy will quickly become a habit. The Mayo Clinic lists five tips on how to lower your bad, or LDL, cholesterol (read the full article). We’ve condensed them so you can get a faster start at a healthier life.

Five tips to lower your cholesterol:

  1. Lose weight. Take a look at your eating and activity habits. Instead of choosing chips when you’re bored, take a walk. Pack a healthier lunch instead of grabbing a burger. Extra pounds contribute to higher cholesterol, and losing weight could help you lower your numbers.
  2. Think (and eat) heart-healthy. How? First, choose fats that are better for you – like olive and peanut oil instead of butter or shortening. Next, read food labels to eliminate the trans fats and lower the cholesterol in your diet. Buy whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Finally, serve up fish and nuts (walnuts, almonds and ground flaxseed) for an omega-3 boost.
  3. Add activity. Exercise, the dreaded “e” word, doesn’t have to be hard. Take a 10-minute walk a few times a day, play your favorite sport, take the stairs, do some yoga. With your doctor’s okay, work up to 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day.
  4. Drop your pack- or four-a-day habit. Quitting smoking can improve your good cholesterol levels, lower your blood pressure, decrease your risk of heart attacks and lower your chances of heart disease.
  5. Drink in moderation. For women, that’s one drink a day or less. For men, that’s one to two drinks a day. Moderate consumption has been linked to higher HDL-C levels, but that doesn’t mean you should start drinking if you don’t already.