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High Cholesterol

If the pipes in your house were rusty or clogged or the water pressure was excessively high, you’d want to know so you could fix any issues before they caused damage. The same goes for high blood pressure and cholesterol for your arteries, but the stakes are higher.

Both conditions increase the risk of heart disease, the No.1 killer of men in the U.S. In many cases, warning signs can go unnoticed for years.

However, the good news is that both conditions can be prevented and improved. That’s why two small tests are such a big deal — a blood pressure check and cholesterol lab.

What is High Cholesterol and What Can Happen?

It may be surprising to hear that cholesterol is not just something bad that comes from food, but is also made in your liver. This waxy, fat-like substance is needed to insulate nerves and build new cells. Cholesterol also helps produce hormones, vitamins, and the bile that helps digestion.

Cholesterol is carried in your blood in particles called lipoproteins. There are two main kinds:

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) — Known as the “bad" cholesterol, LDL is the type that can lead to a buildup or "clogging-up" in the arteries called atherosclerosis.
  • High-density lipoproteins (HDL) — Known as the "good" cholesterol, higher levels of HDL are considered positive, and good for keeping your cardiovascular system healthy. HDL works by "cleaning-up" LDL from your arteries. The higher the HDL the better, and exercise is the best way to increase it.

A high LDL number can spell trouble especially if you smoke, have diabetes, or high blood pressure. LDL is the main source of atherosclerosis plaque build-up in your arteries. Too much plaque narrows the arteries, blocking blood flow to the heart and other organs. When an artery finally "clogs up" it is called a heart attack, stroke, peripheral arterial disease — a different name for the same disease, all depending on what organ is affected. This explains why staying healthy and keeping your cholesterol in check is so critical.

Read why "Why Symptom-Free Doesn’t Always Mean Problem-Free"

How High Cholesterol is Diagnosed

There are very few symptoms of high cholesterol until very late in the game, after years of neglect and accumulation. Most people don’t know if their cholesterol is high unless it is checked regularly.

Optimal cholesterol levels depend on who you are, your age, and what your other risks are (such as if you also smoke or have diabetes or high blood pressure). Clinically, the LDL and HDL are the most important aspects to focus on:

  • LDL ("bad" cholesterol) — Less than 100 if you have diabetes or other cardiovascular risks. However, the LDL can safely be 160 or higher depending on your overall health. Weight loss and eating a healthier diet is the best way to improve your LDL.
  • HDL ("good" cholesterol) — Generally, the higher the better, but 50 or higher is ideal, and exercise is the best way to raise this.

The numbers themselves are part of a much bigger picture that needs to account for your personal risk factors, including your age, blood pressure and whether you smoke or have diabetes. Your doctor will go over your specific numbers to help you understand what they mean for you. But generally speaking, the lower your LDL and the higher your HDL, the lower your risk of heart disease. It’s recommended that everyone over age 30 get a cholesterol test at least once every three to five years.

High Cholesterol Causes and Risk Factors

What causes LDL cholesterol to be high? As with high blood pressure, high cholesterol is mostly related to lifestyle and dietary habits that are in your control to change for the better.

There are many factors that can affect your cholesterol levels, including:

  • The foods you eat, especially those high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sugar
  • Genetics, since high cholesterol tends to run in families (but the overwhelming majority of high cholesterol is due to a poor diet and lack of exercise)
  • Age, as cholesterol levels tend to go up over time
  • Being overweight
  • Being sedentary and lack of physical activity
  • Other medical conditions, such as liver, kidney, and thyroid disease

How to Lower High Cholesterol

Good nutrition is one of your first lines of defense. Following a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and use of olive oil is good not only for your cholesterol, but also your overall health. There are also some specific do’s and don’ts when it comes to the food-fight against high cholesterol.

Foods That Lower Cholesterol

Soluble fiber: Apples, prunes, beans, oatmeal and other high-fiber foods help prevent cholesterol absorption.

  • Nuts: Most types of nuts contain sterols that, like fiber, help you avoid absorbing cholesterol.
  • Spices: Although healthy spices like garlic, ginger, curcumin, black pepper, coriander and cinnamon do not directly lower cholesterol, they are a great way to spice up your diet in ways that avoid sugar and salt.
  • Fish: Eating cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, cod, etc two to four times per week is a better option compared to red meat. However, avoid deep fried fish which just raises cholesterol.
  • Olive oil: Replacing butter with extra-virgin olive oil gives you “good” fats and more anti-oxidants.

High Cholesterol Foods to Avoid

  • Trans fats found in fried food and fast food
  • Highly processed food high in sugar and other preservatives
  • Saturated fats in red meat and many dairy products

Ways to Lower Cholesterol

Most of the things that are good for your blood pressure, blood sugar, and your heart are also good for your cholesterol. Along with improving your diet, it’s important to get plenty of exercise, which can improve your HDL and LDL levels. Losing weight also helps lower cholesterol.

If you’re a smoker, quit as soon as you can. Smoking causes damage to the arteries, which become "sticky" and LDL accumulation increases atherosclerosis, which isn’t a good combination.

Lifestyle changes are the single best treatment for high cholesterol. But if that isn’t enough, your doctor may recommend a medication or other measures to lower your cholesterol. There are several options that can be very effective. Any medication you take will be closely monitored by your doctor on a regular basis to make sure it’s working for you.

How Sauk Prairie Healthcare Can Help

Getting your blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol checked is not about “passing a test." It is just the beginning to know your numbers so don’t hesitate to find out! Just remember that you have options — high blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol are things you can manage with the help of your doctor. And at Sauk Prairie Healthcare, we're here to help. It’s far less stressful on you and your heart to make an appointment, get these quick checks done, and then talk with us about what your numbers mean for you. Whether it’s continuing routine checks, making lifestyle changes, or starting a medication, you’ll have a plan that’s right for you. Call your primary care doctor to schedule your screenings with a physical exam today.