September is National Cholesterol Education Month. Screening for high cholesterol is important because it gives insight into one’s risk for heart disease and stroke.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance in our bodies that is essential to build cells and tissue. Our liver actually provides all of the cholesterol that we need. However, too much dietary cholesterol, can combine with other substances in the blood and form plaque. Plaque sticks to the walls of our arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through easily. This is (usually) what causes heart attacks and strokes. Dietary cholesterol comes from animal products such as red meat, full-fat dairy, and eggs. Certain oils such as coconut oil can trigger our livers to make more cholesterol. Even if you are vegetarian/vegan, you are not safe from high cholesterol!
What else affects cholesterol?
You may or may not know that there are numerous factors that affects one’s cholesterol levels. These risks are categorized as modifiable and non-modifiable.
- Family History of premature heart disease. This is considered to less < age 55 in a father or brother or < age 65 in a mother or sister
- Cigarette smoking
- High blood pressure or you are on medication to treat high blood pressure
- History of Type 1 or 2 Diabetes
All of these factors are taken into account to assess your risk for a cardiovascular event (such as heart attack or stroke).
How do I get my cholesterol tested?
Cholesterol (also known as lipid panel) is tested by a simple blood draw. It is important that you fast (no eating or drinking except water) for approximately 12 hours. This is important to obtain the most accurate results. How often you get tested depends on your health history and other risk factors. Your primary care provider will be able to tell you this.
What do the numbers mean?
A cholesterol panel gives a few different numbers.
- Total cholesterol. This number is a reflection of your LDL, HDL, and triglycerides
- LDL. This is the amount of “bad” cholesterol in your blood. LDL is what builds up and causes plaque that narrows your coronary arteries.
- HDL. This is known as “good” cholesterol. HDL actually takes away bad cholesterol to your liver so that excess can be removed from the body. Having a high level of HDL cholesterol is a protective factor against cardiovascular disease.
- Triglycerides. This is another type of fat in the body that is used for energy. High triglyceride levels are caused by poor diet and can also be caused by certain disease states such as underactive thyroid and uncontrolled diabetes.
I cannot tell you exactly what numbers you should have as it is your overall risk that is assessed. In fact, current evidence-based guidelines are moving away from targeting particular numbers for LDL. Your provider can calculate your 10-year risk for heart attack/stroke using the risk factors listed above. This will help guide treatment of cholesterol.
How is high cholesterol treated?
If your “bad” cholesterol is too high, not to worry! It can be treated but will require some work.
First line treatment of high cholesterol is known as therapeutic lifestyle changes. This is separated into three parts:
- A diet that is low in cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat. Think plentiful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy
- Weight management. Your primary care provider will be able to give you an idea of your weight goal.
- Physical activity. Get moving! Exercise can actually raise your “good” cholesterol levels.
High cholesterol can also be treated with medications in addition to therapeutic lifestyle changes. There are also a number of herbals and supplements that claim to lower cholesterol levels. You should work together with your provider to find the best regimen for you.
If you have not had your cholesterol checked in awhile, now is a great time to do it! It is very easy! You may be preventing a future heart attack or stroke!
Disclaimer: Information contained in this post should not be substituted for medical advice. If you think you are having a problem, contact your own provider who knows your health history.
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