To be heart-healthy means that many different aspects of health and lifestyle have to be in alignment. Plenty of exercise, minimal salt intake, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol—all of these things lend themselves to keeping cardiovascular disease at bay. One thing that is also talked about when it comes to heart health: cholesterol.
Cholesterol and its role in heart health is often misunderstood; it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as your body needs it in order to build healthy cells. But too much cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease, making it something you need to manage in order to maintain your heart health.
“Good” Cholesterol vs. “Bad” Cholesterol
The Mayo Clinic described cholesterol as “a waxy substance that's found in all of your cells and has several useful functions, including helping to build your body's cells.” Cholesterol attaches itself to proteins, called lipoproteins, and is carried through the bloodstream. There are two different types of cholesterol that are measured when we have bloodwork at the doctor: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Although all cholesterol is good to have in your body up to a certain amount, when LDLs build up in your body, they can restrict the passageways of your blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. That’s why LDLs are known as “bad” cholesterol. HDLs are less threatening to your body since they carry excess cholesterol in your blood to your liver, where it’s broken down and ultimately removed from your body.
Keeping Tabs on Your Cholesterol Levels
Most people will have bloodwork done as part of their annual exam with their doctor, and cholesterol levels are routinely checked as part of that bloodwork. Depending on your age and risk factors, however, your physician might recommend to have your bloodwork done more often than once a year in order to monitor your cholesterol levels. It’s for this reason that many experts suggest lowering your intake of foods that are high in saturated fat, such as red meat, palm oil and dairy products, in order to keep your “bad” cholesterol in check.
According to the American Heart Association, blood tests that screen for cholesterol levels can be either a fasting or a non-fasting lipoprotein profile. The fasting test “usually means not eating, drinking certain beverages and taking medications 9 to 12 hours before the cholesterol test” in order to yield the best and most accurate results.
What to Do if Your Cholesterol Levels Are High
While it might be difficult to get news from your doctor that seems unpleasant, the truth of the matter is that most often cholesterol levels can be managed by making diet and lifestyle changes. For example, if your bloodwork shows high levels of LDLs, your doctor might tell you to reduce your intake of red meats and processed meats like bologna and salami, foods that are high in sodium, and full-fat dairy products. Additionally, exercise that leads to weight loss can also be a valuable tool to help you combat “bad” cholesterol buildup in your body, as well as quitting smoking and reducing the amount of alcohol you consume.
Depending on your doctor’s recommendations, you also may be prescribed medication to help manage your cholesterol levels and lower your LDLs. Of course, be sure to consult your physician about all of the possible side effects before taking any prescription medication.