Your cholesterol can be a tricky part of your health to understand. There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, and both have certain ranges they need to be within to be considered healthy. Managing your cholesterol can range from adjusting your diet to creating a workout routine, or medical management.

What is Cholesterol?

For the most part, cholesterol isn’t a bad thing. In fact, your body needs cholesterol for a variety of reasons. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body uses to build cells and make vitamins and hormones.

Cholesterol comes from two places. Your liver produces cholesterol, and it actually produces all the cholesterol your body needs. Cholesterol also comes from foods like meat and dairy.

Foods like meat, poultry, and dairy also often contain fats. Those fats, which are also found in most baked goods too, can cause your liver to produce too much cholesterol, which leads to unhealthy levels of cholesterol in your body.

Types of Cholesterol

Cholesterol comes in two forms. LDL cholesterol is known as “bad” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is known as “good” cholesterol. When your body has too much bad cholesterol or too little good cholesterol, it can cause health problems.

LDL Cholesterol

This type of cholesterol is known as “bad cholesterol”. LDL cholesterol is what contributes to blockages in your arteries. When that buildup hardens your arteries or creates blockages, your risk increases for heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease (PAD).

HDL Cholesterol

This type of cholesterol is referred to as “good cholesterol”. At healthy levels, HDL cholesterol actually protects your heart against stroke and heart attack. It also carries bad cholesterol away from your arteries so it can be broken down and expelled from the body.

Cholesterol and Your Health

Having high cholesterol is a health condition on its own. This condition, called hyperlipidemia, occurs when you have too much bad cholesterol in your blood. One reason high cholesterol is such a serious health condition is that it increases your risk for other, potentially deadly issues.

When you have too much bad cholesterol in your body, usually due to a diet high in fatty foods, it has nowhere to go. Your body uses some cholesterol to produce vitamins and hormones, but when there’s too much and it isn’t used, it has to find somewhere to go. The excess cholesterol then builds up in your arteries, which leads to health complications.

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

When you hear the term ‘heart disease’ it usually refers to CAD. This disease occurs as a result of plaque building up in your arteries from high cholesterol. Blocked arteries can’t carry as much blood to your heart, and when your heart doesn’t get enough blood, it gets weaker, which can lead to heart failure.

Coronary artery disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. It also affects people regardless of age. 20% of people who die from heart disease are under the age of 65. Because of this, it is important to have your cholesterol regularly checked no matter your age.

Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease occurs when plaque build-up specifically affects your carotid arteries. Carotid arteries are what carry oxygen to the main part of your brain. When they become blocked your brain can’t get enough oxygen, which can lead to a stroke.

Because one of the only signs of carotid artery disease is a stroke or mini-stroke, your best bet is prevention. Having your cholesterol tested on a regular basis will help lessen or eliminate your risk.

Peripheral Artery Disease

PAD occurs when high cholesterol leads to arterial blockages in your arms or legs. This condition is especially dangerous because there rarely has any symptoms. In some cases, you may experience cramps when moving, but this only occurs when your arteries are already 60% blocked.

People who develop peripheral artery disease are at an increased risk of coronary artery disease as well. A person who develops one usually develops the other as well, since plaque can damage numerous artery areas at once.

Other Risks

High cholesterol is usually the first sign of significant health issues. Having high cholesterol increases your risk for numerous health conditions like the ones mentioned above. It can also increase your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.

Preventing High Cholesterol

High cholesterol can be prevented with simple lifestyle choices. By managing the choices that you make day to day, you can keep your cholesterol at a healthy level and avoid increasing your risk for serious medical conditions like stroke and heart attack.

Make Healthy Food Choices

Your body naturally produces all the good cholesterol you need. Bad cholesterol is usually found in foods with a high amount of saturated fat, like fatty meat, dairy, and cheese.

To keep your cholesterol levels where they should be, focus on including lean meats like turkey, chicken, and pork instead of fatty meats. You should also incorporate seafood, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and veggies.

Live an Active Life

Being active is a key part of living an overall healthy life. It is especially important for managing your cholesterol levels because it helps you achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

Being active for about two and a half hours each week helps keep your weight in a healthy range, which in turn reduces your risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Cut Unhealthy Habits

Smoking is a deadly habit. Aside from being the leading cause of lung cancer, smoking also causes your arteries to harden. This increases your risk for heart disease on its own and combined with unhealthy cholesterol levels it can be a deadly combination.

Drinking in moderation has limited negative effects on your health and well-being. However, frequent drinking can raise your cholesterol levels. Talk to your provider about healthy alcohol levels.

Treating High Cholesterol

When it comes to treating and managing high cholesterol you can incorporate many of the same strategies used for preventing high cholesterol. Your provider will also likely use medication to help you manage your cholesterol and ultimately get your cholesterol back into a healthy range.

High cholesterol is something that can be prevented, and it is completely treatable. The most important thing to remember is that you cannot monitor your cholesterol without seeing your provider and being tested.

A simple blood test can give you and your health care team all the information you need to develop a prevention or treatment plan. Without knowing your levels, you roll the dice on developing potentially fatal health conditions.

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