What is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is made in the body by the liver. Cholesterol forms part of every cell in the body. Our bodies need cholesterol to: Maintain healthy cell walls. Make hormones (the body’s chemical messengers). Make Vitamin D. Make bile acids, which aid in the digestion. Sometimes, however, our bodies make more cholesterol than we really need, and this excess cholesterol circulates in the bloodstream. High levels of cholesterol in the blood can clog blood vessels and increase the risk for heart disease and stroke.
Our bodies can make too much cholesterol when we eat too much saturated fat- the kind of fat found in animal-based foods such as meat and dairy products.
In addition to making cholesterol, we also get a small percentage of our body’s cholesterol from the foods we eat. Only animal-based foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy products contain cholesterol. Plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains do not contain cholesterol.
There are different types of cholesterol–and not all cholesterol is harmful.
Low-density lipoprotein (or LDL) cholesterol is a bad type of cholesterol that is most likely to clog blood vessels, increasing your risk for heart disease.
High-density lipoprotein (or HDL) cholesterol is a good type of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol helps clear the LDL cholesterol out of the blood and reduces your risk for heart disease.
When we get more cholesterol than we need- either because of our body makes too much or because we eat too many cholesterol-rich foods- the surplus cholesterol circulates in the bloodstream. Along with other fat-like substances, certain kinds of this circulating cholesterol tend to deposit in the inner lining of the blood vessels.
These cholesterol-rich deposits become coated with scar tissue, forming a bump in the blood vessel known as plaque. Plaque build-up can narrow and harden the blood vessel- a process called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Eventually these plaque deposits can build up to reduce or block blood flow, causing a heart attack or stroke. Many people experience chest pain or discomfort from inadequate blood flow to the heart, especially during exercise when the heart needs more oxygen. Smaller plaques can also burst, causing blood flowing over them to clot and clog the blood vessel.
CAUSES OF HIGH BLOOD CHOLESTEROL
Many factors can contribute to high blood cholesterol levels or cholesterol levels that are out of balance. Some of these factors are within your control, and some are not.
To some extent, your genetic makeup determines your cholesterol level.
Some people inherit a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia, which means that very high cholesterol levels run in the family.
Some people may simply be more likely than others to react to lifestyle factors (such as lack of exercise or a high-fat diet) that push up cholesterol levels. Other people, especially people for whom diabetes runs in the family, inherit high triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are another type of blood fat that can also push up cholesterol levels.
Besides your genetic make-up, many lifestyle factors affect cholesterol levels and cholesterol balance:
WHAT YOU EAT. Eating too much saturated fat (the kind found in high fat meats and dairy products) and cholesterol can cause your body to make more cholesterol, raising your blood cholesterol levels. You can lower your cholesterol level by cutting down on animal fat and other fats and eating foods rich in starch and fiber, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
HOW ACTIVE YOUR ARE. Regular exercise not only reduces total blood cholesterol, but it lowers the bad kind of cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) while raising the good kind of cholesterol (HDL cholesterol).
WHAT YOU WEIGH. Being overweight contributes to rising blood cholesterol levels. Fortunately, changes to lower cholesterol levels also help you control your weight, a double benefit.
YOUR HORMONES. Women get a natural boost in their HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) from their hormones until they reach menopause. After menopause, taking estrogen can help maintain higher HDL cholesterol levels.