By Jennifer Larson
How’s your cholesterol? If you don’t know, it might be time to get your cholesterol levels checked, so you can make sure you’re doing what it takes to keep them under control.
But first, it’s important to know what cholesterol is. Cholesterol is a waxy substance in your cells. You have two kinds of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). You often hear HDL referred to as the “good” cholesterol and LDL as the “bad” cholesterol. You also have another fat in your blood known as triglycerides, which contribute to your overall cholesterol level.
You actually do need some cholesterol because it helps build healthy cells. But you can have too much cholesterol in your blood, a condition known as hyperlipidemia, or high cholesterol. When your LDL cholesterol levels are too high, you’re prone to developing plaques, or fatty deposits, in your blood vessels. Over time, these plaques can thicken, narrowing those vessels and make it hard for blood to flow through your arteries. If a piece breaks off and forms a clot, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Here’s the kicker: You might have no idea that your cholesterol levels are high. There aren’t any symptoms of hyperlipidemia. You might know that you’re at risk for high cholesterol because of certain factors, like a family history of high cholesterol or health conditions like Type 2 diabetes and obesity. But the only way you can know for sure is to get a blood test.
No matter if you’ve been diagnosed with hyperlipidemia or not, these six strategies can help you manage your cholesterol.
Since you might have high cholesterol and not even realize it, that’s why it’s crucial to get your cholesterol levels checked. The American Heart Association recommends getting your cholesterol checked every four to six years after age 20. Your primary care provider can run the test for you. You’ll get a score called a total blood cholesterol score that totals up your HDL and LDL levels, along with 20% of your triglycerides.
You have direct control over what you eat. Make your diet work for you. Here are a few specific suggestions to help you improve your diet:
Reduce the “bad” fats that you consume. Foods that are high in trans fats and saturated fats can send your cholesterol levels soaring. Saturated fats lurk in full-fat dairy products and red meat, while trans fats can often be food in processed foods like crackers, cookies, and other products containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Eat food containing omega-3 fatty acids. While you’re swapping out the saturated fats for unsaturated fats, start adding in more foods that contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, too. Salmon, tuna and herring are both rich in omega-3s, and so are walnuts and flaxseeds.
Eat more fiber. But not just any old fiber. Look for foods that contain soluble fiber. Soluble fiber—which can be found in brussels sprouts, apples, oranges, dried beans, lentils, and oats—can decrease the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your bloodstream.
Exercise serves many purposes. It can build muscle mass and improve your stamina. But it can also help you shed a few pounds and maintain a healthy weight. As it turns out, when you work out, you’re raising your HDL levels.
If you don’t smoke, you’re in the clear on this one. But if you do smoke, it’s time to quit. “But how does smoking affect my cholesterol levels?” you may be wondering. Consider: smoking damages your blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels are more likely to accumulate those plaques that can be dangerous. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that smoking might lower those good cholesterol levels.
If your doctor has prescribed cholesterol medication to you, be sure to take it as directed. Many people with high cholesterol take statins, which are a type of medication known as HMG CoA reductase inhibitors. That’s a fancy way of saying these medications block an enzyme that your liver needs to make more cholesterol so less cholesterol is produced. Many statins, like atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor), are available in both generic and brand name form. There are other types of cholesterol-lowering medications available, too, and one of those may be more appropriate for you. Discuss the options with your doctor so you can make sure you’re taking the one that’s right for you—and keep taking it.
Moderate to heavy drinking can raise your cholesterol levels. But some research suggests that occasional alcohol use can help you raise your HDL levels, which can help protect you against heart disease. But you don’t have to start drinking alcohol if you don’t already; you have other options, like exercise, for managing your cholesterol levels.
Talk to your doctor if you’re struggling to keep your cholesterol levels low enough. You can explore the strategies that you’re currently using and see if there are better options for you to try.
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