The level of cholesterol in your body is an important indicator of your overall health.

Cholesterol plays a distinct role in cardiovascular disease, which involves coronary heart disease, stroke, as well as peripheral vascular disease. High cholesterol has also been found to have a link to diabetes and high blood pressure. To prevent the onset of these conditions, it is important to fully understand what cholesterol is and how it impacts your body as well as how you can effectively monitor your levels to identify the onset of an issue.

What Is Cholesterol?

To understand the nuances of high cholesterol, it helps to break down the basics of what cholesterol actually is. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found within your body’s cells. Much like fat, cholesterol is important within your body to produce hormones, vitamin D, and substances that aid in the digestion of your food. However, your body makes all of the cholesterol it needs. In other words, you don’t need any additional cholesterol, but there is often cholesterol in many of the foods you eat.

Cholesterol is a substance that cannot dissolve in the blood and must be transported throughout your body. It is transported by “carriers” known as lipoproteins. These lipoproteins got their name because they are made of fats, or lipids, and proteins.

Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol through your body – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Your LDL and HDL cholesterol in conjunction with one-fifth of your triglyceride level make up your total cholesterol count, which is typically measured through a blood test.

What’s the Difference between LDL and HDL Cholesterol?

It’s important that you understand the primary differences between the two types of cholesterol primarily because LDL cholesterol is considered “bad” and HDL is considered “good.” The two forms of cholesterol function in different ways and can contribute to different concerns within the body.

LDL Cholesterol

This is “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to the buildup of plaque (thick, hard deposits) in the arteries. These deposits make the arteries less flexible, causing a condition known as atherosclerosis. If a clot forms and blocks an artery, you may experience a heart attack or stroke. The buildup of LDL cholesterol can also cause a condition known as peripheral artery disease, which occurs as plaque builds up and causes the artery to narrow, preventing blood flow to the legs.

An LDL cholesterol level of 190 or more is considered extremely high. The higher your bad cholesterol level is, the greater your risk for heart disease. If your bad cholesterol level is high, your doctor will likely recommend a statin as well as healthy lifestyle changes to reduce your cholesterol level.

HDL Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is considered “good” because it helps remove bad cholesterol from the arteries. Researchers believe that HDL functions to carry LDL away from the arteries and back into the liver, where it can be broken down and removed from the body. One-fourth to one-third of cholesterol is removed by HDL. Additionally, a healthy level of HDL may also prevent heart attack and stroke. However, low levels of HDL cholesterol has been shown to potentially increase the risk of heart disease.

With HDL cholesterol, a high number means a lower risk for disease. A statin and regular exercise can slightly increase your HDL.

What Impacts Cholesterol Levels?

Your cholesterol levels are affected by a variety of different factors. Some of the most impactful factors include:

  • Your food choices. – Eating a diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol can elevate your cholesterol levels. Foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol are those that are derived from animals, such as meats, whole milk, egg yolks, butter, and cheese. Trans fat is found in fried and packaged foods, such as chips, crackers, and cookies.
  • Your weight. – Weight is another factor that heavily impacts cholesterol levels. Being overweight may increase your triglycerides and decrease HDL.
  • Your activity level. – Exercise can lower your LDL and increase your HDL.
  • Your gender and age. – After age 20, your cholesterol begins to naturally rise. In men, cholesterol typically levels off after age 50. However, in women, it remains relatively low until menopause and then rises to roughly the same level as men.
  • Certain diseases. – Specific diseases have been shown to increase your risk of high cholesterol. These diseases include kidney disease, hypothyroidism, and certain types of liver disease.
  • Your family history. – High cholesterol is often a condition that runs in families. If your family has the condition, it is likely that you will develop it as well.

In addition to these factors, smoking and certain medications may also contribute to an elevated level of cholesterol in your body.

What Is the Best Way to Manage Cholesterol?

Lifestyle changes are often highly effective for improving cholesterol levels. This approach can even help you avoid taking medication or enhance the effects of the medications you do take. Here are some tips on how to manage your cholesterol levels:

  • Eat more heart-healthy foods. – Even if you have been eating unhealthily for years, tweaking your diet in a couple of ways can reduce your cholesterol and improve your cardiovascular health. To begin, choose healthier fats, found in leaner meats, low-fat dairy, and monounsaturated fats. Also, avoid trans fat, such as those found in cookies, crackers, and snack cakes.
  • Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. – Omega-3 fats don’t affect LDL cholesterol; however, they do increase your level of high-density lipoprotein. Certain types of fish, nuts, and flax are high in omega-3 fats.
  • Increase soluble fiber. – Of the two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, soluble fiber decreases your LDL levels. You can increase your soluble fiber intake by eating oats, fruits, beans, lentils, and vegetables.
  • Exercise more. – Exercise can improve cholesterol levels. Try to incorporate at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.
  • Check your blood pressure regularly. – High blood pressure can indicate a high level of cholesterol in the blood, so monitoring it using a blood pressure monitor, like the iHealth Feel, can help you recognize a rise in your levels and identify the onset of any issues.

High cholesterol can dramatically impact your health. Understanding the basics of cholesterol, implementing effective strategies to manage your levels, and regularly monitoring your blood pressure can help you avoid concerning health issues. Use these tips to keep your health in check and live a healthy, happy life.