Hypercholesterolemia, or high cholesterol levels in blood, can lead to stroke, coronary heart disease and heart attacks. Acceptable levels of cholesterol are necessary to build cells and the body creates the right amount to do that. Excess amounts of this waxy substance can clog arteries and prevent the flow of oxygen-carrying blood. This is the result of eating food that includes what is known as “dietary cholesterol.” Meat, poultry and non-reduced-fat dairy products contain cholesterol that can eventually cause the liver to create more than is needed, thus causing a problem. Additional saturated and trans-fats can be found in these foods. Certain oils found in pastries and baked goods also contain cholesterol.
Cholesterol levels are measured in several ways. LDL cholesterol, often referred to as “bad cholesterol,” is what distributes the excess material to the arteries. HDL cholesterol, “good cholesterol,” helps keep the arteries clear. Triglycerides are also monitored. That term refers to fat that is distributed throughout the body. A buildup of these fats, along with a high LDL cholesterol level, is dangerous.
Changes in daily living help
As with hypertension, or high blood pressure, certain measures can be taken to help control high cholesterol levels. Changes in diet, exercise, weight and lifestyle habits, such as stopping smoking and reducing stress, can lower LDL and increase HDL cholesterol levels. Switching from sugar-based treats to nuts and fruit for snacks, avoiding fried food and adding poultry and fish to the diet all help curb dietary cholesterol. For instance, the omega-3 fatty acids contained in certain fish helps lower triglycerides. Omega-3 appears in mackerel, trout, salmon and other fish.
Even moderate exercise helps reduce LDL levels and increases HDL. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends engaging in moderate or more intense aerobic exercise for forty minutes three to four times per week or 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Walking is a good example of moderate exercise. A physician or cardiologist should be consulted before any exercise program is begun.
A study in England of two-hundred middle aged people showed that stress definitely increases LDL cholesterol levels, even among the participants who started the study with normal readings. This applied to both men and women who participated. In this case, the “stress test” wasn’t a treadmill or other physical activity, but included mismatched colors on a page and the assignment to draw a star on a mirror. Lowering stress also helps lower cholesterol levels.
If these lifestyle and dietary changes don’t result in a big enough reduction in cholesterol levels, medicine may be prescribed. The most common, and usually the first prescribed, are statins. Statins actively reduce LDL levels and prevent heart attacks. They work with the liver to control the amount of cholesterol the body creates. In addition, they help reduce the amount of cholesterol already in the blood system. Most people have few side effects from taking statins, if any.
If statins cause unpleasant side effects, other medication is available. Among complaints for patients statins don’t fit are memory loss, aches and pains and flu symptoms. Alternatives to statins are available. Bile-acid binding medication is sometimes prescribed. Fibrates eliminate triglycerides. Niacin, a derivative of vitamin B, can reduce the amount of fats produced by the body. Regarding omega-3 acids found in fish, there are also supplements containing it that can be prescribed to help eliminate triglycerides.
Another non-statin option is the PCSK9 inhibitor. A PCSK9 inhibitor controls how much LDL cholesterol is created. While statins focus on the production of cholesterol in the liver, PCSK9 inhibitors have been proven effective in reducing it throughout the bloodstream. PCSK9 inhibitors created by some manufacturers have tested favorably in preventing heart attacks and strokes, as well. Research for new medications is ongoing, as well.
Diet and lifestyle changes, medication or a combination of both can be utilized to control cholesterol. Actively monitoring cholesterol is vitally important to cardiovascular health.