Cholesterol is both good and bad. At normal levels, it is an essential substance for the body. However, if concentrations in the blood get too high, it becomes a silent danger that puts people at risk of heart attack.
Cholesterol is present in every cell of the body and has important natural functions when it comes to digesting foods, producing hormones, and generating vitamin D. The body produces it, but people also consume it in food. It is waxy and fat-like in appearance.
There are two types of cholesterol:
- low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol
- high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or "good" cholesterol
In this article, we will explain the role of cholesterol. We will also discuss the causes of high cholesterol, and its symptoms, treatment, and prevention.
- Cholesterol is an essential substance that the body produces but which people also consume in foods.
- Risk factors for high cholesterol include family history and the modifiable lifestyle choices of diet and exercise.
- Having high cholesterol does not usually produce any symptoms.
- If lifestyle changes are unsuccessful or cholesterol levels are very high, a doctor may prescribe a lipid-lowering drug, such as a statin.
Causes of high cholesterol
A build-up of cholesterol is part of the process that narrows arteries, called atherosclerosis. In atherosclerosis, plaques form and cause restriction of blood flow.
Reducing the intake of fat in the diet helps to manage cholesterol levels. In particular, it is helpful to limit foods that contain:
- Cholesterol: This is present in animal foods, meat, and cheese.
- Saturated fat: This occurs in some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, deep-fried, and processed foods.
- Trans fats: This occurs in some fried and processed foods.
Excess weight or obesity can also lead to higher blood LDL levels. Genetic factors can contribute to high cholesterol. People with the inherited condition familial hypercholesterolemia have very high LDL levels.
Other conditions that can lead to high cholesterol levels, include:
- liver or kidney disease
- polycystic ovary syndrome
- pregnancy and other conditions that increase levels of female hormones
- underactive thyroid gland
- drugs that increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, such as progestins, anabolic steroids, and corticosteroids.
Preventing high cholesterol
People who wish to reduce their cholesterol levels or maintain a suitable level can make four major lifestyle decisions.
- eat a heart-healthy diet
- regularly exercise
- avoid smoking
- achieve and maintain a healthy weight
These actions will reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attack.
Since 2013, guidelines on reducing or preventing high cholesterol have focused on addressing lifestyle risks, even at a young age. Since 2018, new guidelines published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology also urged doctors also to discuss with individuals the following factors that may increase a person's risk:
- family history and ethnicity
- certain health conditions that increase the risk of high cholesterol, such as chronic kidney disease or chronic inflammatory conditions
Taking these factors into consideration will lead to a more personalized approach to the treatment and prevention of high cholesterol levels.