Many adults struggle with managing their high cholesterol on their own. According to the CDC, almost two in five adults in the United States has high cholesterol. Raised cholesterol levels can lead to the development of fatty deposits in your blood vessels. This eventually results in blockages in your arteries which can impact blood flow and lead to heart disease. The World Health Organization estimates that 39 percent of adults have high cholesterol globally, contributing to approximately 2.6 million deaths worldwide. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to manage your high cholesterol.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is the waxy, fat-like substance that your body uses to make hormones and vitamins and build new cells. Cholesterol can come from your blood and from your diet. Your liver is responsible for the production of blood cholesterol, which makes most of the new cells in the body. Dietary cholesterol comes from the food we eat, including red meat, saturated fat, and other animal products. While your body requires cholesterol to build cells, too much of it can lead to heart disease or stroke.
How do I know if my cholesterol is too high?
High cholesterol can be tricky because there are typically no symptoms for those who have it. For that reason, high cholesterol often progresses unchecked until it develops into an issue with the heart, brain, or blood vessels. Signs your cholesterol may have developed into heart disease include chest pain, shortness of breath, and more.
So how can doctors identify high cholesterol before it has negative impacts? The American Heart Association recommends that adults receive a yearly lipid panel from their primary care provider to catch high cholesterol before it becomes harmful. Those with additional risk factors like family history or other concerns may require additional testing to ensure their cholesterol levels remain healthy. A lipid panel is a blood test that determines your cholesterol levels. There are three main parts of cholesterol: HDL, LDL, and triglycerides:
LDL or low-density lipoprotein is commonly referred to as the “bad” kind of cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol result in fatty buildup in your arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease.
HDL or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol is commonly referred to as the “good” kind of cholesterol. Someone with a high level of HDL cholesterol is at a lower risk of heart disease. It reduces blockages in the arteries by bringing LDL cholesterol away from the body’s arteries and back to the liver where it can be broken down.
Triglycerides are a lipid (fat) circulated in your blood. They come from the food we eat and are the most common form of fat in the body. Too many triglycerides could lead to an unhealthy cholesterol buildup in the body.
Routine cholesterol checks are essential for the management of cholesterol levels. A lipid panel or lipid test will check the level of cholesterol in your blood, giving a total cholesterol count, LDL count, HDL count, and a measure of your triglycerides. A normal, healthy young person will want an LDL of less than 130. Certain risk factors including high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, or alcohol use, which may put you at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Those with risk factors will want an even lower LDL around 100. Additionally, those with a history of cardiovascular disease or those who’ve had a heart attack or stroke should aim to reduce their LDL to below 55.
While it may seem easy to rely on the numbers from a lipid panel to determine your health, they don’t always give the full picture. Everyone should have a conversation with a healthcare provider regarding their results in order to understand their unique risk factors and circumstances. Ongoing management of high cholesterol is critical to one’s overall health.
How can I manage my high cholesterol?
Management of high cholesterol often involves a combination of lifestyle adjustments and cholesterol-lowering medication. Here are some ways you can lower your cholesterol:
- Change your diet
Be mindful of red meats and other meat with high-fat content. Cook with healthy oils like olive oil and avocado oil because they can help clear out arteries rather than blocking them like canola oil or vegetable oils. Cut back on foods high in saturated fats like pie, chips, or cake. Look for healthy options such as whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables (try to eat “the rainbow” of vegetables or a wide variety), and lean protein like fish and poultry.
- Reduce alcohol intake
Too much alcohol, especially binge drinking, can lead to an increase in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The National Heart Foundation’s latest advice is that there is no amount of alcohol that is good for the heart. If you are going to drink alcohol, less is better for the heart.
- Quit smoking
Smoking increases the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood while decreasing your HDL cholesterol. This increases your risk of blockages in your arteries and heart problems.
- Exercise more
For many, adding movement to your daily routine can help reduce your LDL cholesterol. Typically, when we think about exercising more, we imagine getting a gym membership or taking up running, but even simple changes to your activity could have an impact. For example, try parking farther away from your destination in the parking lot, try taking the stairs rather than the elevator, go on a walk after a meal, or do a half hour of gardening or cleaning. Ideally, the average adult should be getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
- Cholesterol medication
There are a number of medications you can take to help lower your cholesterol. Taking cholesterol-lowering medication starts with a conversation between the patient and provider. If you believe you may benefit from medication, make an appointment to see your primary care provider to see which medications would work best for you.
Why does nothing seem to be working?
For some adults, no amount of eating right, exercising, or avoidance of risk behaviors like smoking or alcohol abuse will lower their cholesterol. There is a genetic component of high cholesterol, meaning you could be as healthy as possible and still have a problem. The good news is that with modern medicine, providers can make interventions for these people and help them lower their cholesterol. If you’re having difficulty lowering your cholesterol, don’t be discouraged.
“I always tell my patients that even just small drops in cholesterol are an improvement,” said certified Physician Assistant, Abby Martin with TPMG Greenbrier Family Medicine in Chesapeake. Small steps in the right direction will ultimately have a larger impact later. Cholesterol is something that could impact your health 10 years down the line, so doing your part to minimize the risk now could save you some literal heartache later.
If you’re looking to lower your cholesterol, don’t be discouraged. Consistency is key. Try to find ways to stay motivated, whether that means finding a routine or joining a group of people who may be looking to lower their cholesterol as well. The journey towards better health isn’t always easy, but we at TPMG are there to walk alongside you and help you reach your health goals.
About Abby Martin, PA-C
Abby Martin, PA-C is a certified Physician Assistant with TPMG Greenbrier Family Medicine in Chesapeake. As a provider, Abby’s first priority is to be an active listener, ensuring her patients feel their concerns are heard. She encourages her patients to play an active role in the healthcare process, believing that those who are actively involved in their healthcare achieve better outcomes.