Cholesterol is misunderstood. For most of us, we’ve gone our entire life without having much concern, or even much knowledge of what cholesterol really is, or how cholesterol really works. You’d be surprised to know that cholesterol plays a bigger role in your health thank you think.
What Is Cholesterol?
The definition of cholesterol states, that cholesterol is a compound of the sterol type found in most body tissues. Cholesterol and its derivatives are important constituents of cell membranes and precursors of other steroid compounds, but a high proportion in the blood of low-density lipoprotein (which transports cholesterol to the tissues) is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Confusing right? Scientifically speaking, cholesterol is a four-ring carbon structure (probably sounds like high school chemistry all over again). Don’t fret – the reason why I’m telling you what it looks like molecularly is because it’s important to understanding the function. The molecular shape reduces permeability (letting liquid or gas pass through) while acting as a gatekeeper for charged molecules to pass with ease, such as sodium. Sounds like a bunch of gibberish, but stick with me here.
What Does Cholesterol Do?
Within the body, cholesterol plays a pretty big role in forming bile acids (made from the liver to break down fat), sex hormones (like testosterone, hey fellas!), adrenal hormones (fight or flight), and vitamin D (read more about vitamin d here).
What Are The Symptoms Of High Cholesterol?
When your body overproduces cholesterol, or you ingests too much cholesterol through your diet, extra cholesterol tends to build up in the arteries closest to your heart. High levels of the waxy substance floating around in the bloodstream disrupt the normal processing of nutrients in the blood as well as the epithelial lining of the arteries.
High levels of cholesterol create a pretty big problem – plaque. Plaque is created from other fats, calcium, and cholesterol. Over time plaque thickens, hardens, and builds within the arteries, which narrows artery walls. This also creates inflammatory cells to accumulate within the inner lining of the artery, attracting a crowd, and not a good one at that. An influx of blood cells to the site promotes bonding and clotting in the damaged area. Suddenly your party for few becomes a party for many, and you might have to call the cops (or the docs, seriously though).
High Cholesterol Levels Aren’t Just for Old People
Think your well-functioning, limber, muscle stacked body isn’t at risk for poor cholesterol and cholesterol buildup? Think again sweet cheeks – science has proven that plaque formation actually begins in the first decade of life and escalates from there. With that being said, you might not be as healthy as you appear, or think yourself to be.
“The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that more than 12.5 million Americans suffer from coronary artery disease and each year it causes 500,000 deaths”
Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) was once thought to only affect older adults, but research is finding that cholesterol levels found in the majority of young adults (20s & 30s) are associated with damage to coronary arteries. An associate professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and of Medicine at UCSF states that “We don’t usually worry too much about heart disease risk until a person is in middle age because it’s rare to have a heart attack in young adulthood, however, our evidence shows that young adulthood is an important time because lasting damage already starts to accumulate at this age.”
Findings such as these are leading to blocking blood flow (heart attacks) and even plaque that breaks off and creates an occlusion (strokes) in middle age. In addition to being put at risk for Atherosclerosis from high cholesterol, chances are you’ll run into coronary artery disease, peripheral artery disease, cerebrovascular disease, or even angina. Good news for you, before you run away from the computer wondering if you’re going to be one of the 500,000 people who pass from high cholesterol levels this year, it’s important to understand that there are different types of cholesterol – one that can harm you and one that can help you. Shall we?
High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) – The Good Cholesterol
High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol is a combination of protein, cholesterol, phospholipids, and triglyceride molecules, with protein being the most abundant at (50%). Talk about a strong team of musketeers! Okay, seriously though, HDLs main function within the human body is to transport cholesterol (waxy substance) back to the liver through the bloodstream. It’s an important job! High-Density Lipoproteins act as the cleanup crew so that they can roam free within the bloodstream without any blockages.
A good cholesterol level hovers around 60mg/dL or greater (40mg/dL is on the low side) and these numbers can be determined by a simple blood test.
How to Improve HDL Cholesterol Levels
- Lose the extra weight overnight (okay, maybe not overnight, but you can read more here)
- Stop smoking
- Exercise regularly (30-60 minutes a day)
- Replace saturated fats with monounsaturated fats
Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) – The Bad Cholesterol
Every good guy has to have a bad guy to show how good they really are, am I right? LDLs are widely considered to be the bad cholesterol within the body. Its team is composed of 50% cholesterol, phospholipids, triglycerides, and protein molecules (sound familiar). Unlike HDLs role in the body, LDL serves the purpose of transporting cholesterol to the body’s cells in order to facilitate hormone synthesis. The simple way of putting it is this, high LDL levels lead to a plaque traffic jam within the arteries, and it’s a lot worse than gridlock in LA at 5 pm on a Tuesday.
“An estimated 73.5 million American adults have high LDL levels and less than ½ will receive any type of treatment for it”
The best way to lower LDL cholesterol levels naturally is through diet and exercise (yes, we recommend this a lot, we know). Not smoking can contribute to lower cholesterol levels as well as eating more foods that are rich in fiber and omega-3s. If you cannot get enough Omegas in your diet (healthy fats) then we recommend supplementing with Krill Oil (already take fish oil? Read why krill oil is better here).
What Is the Cholesterol Ratio and Why Should You Care?
The cholesterol ratio is the rule of thumb in which physicians determine your risk for contracting heart disease. How to find your cholesterol ratio: divide your HDL number by your total cholesterol level. Optimally speaking, you want to aim for less than 3.5:1.0. Your risk for heart disease increases with the greater your cholesterol ratio may be. Medically speaking, the cholesterol ratio has proved to be a better indicator of heart disease as compared to just using your LDL levels or total blood cholesterol levels alone.
How To Lower Cholesterol Levels: A Quick How-To Guide
It’s not fair to you, the reader, to tell you about all this bad stuff without telling you something good to do about it, are we in agreement here? I’d like to think so. With that being said, changing your diet to one that includes omega 3 fatty acids and fiber can greatly improve your cholesterol levels. And it’s no secret here that I’m also going to recommend moving around for a consistent 30-60 minutes a day. If you need to ditch a few LB’s, we recommend doing so gradually, to not only be more successful in your efforts but to do so in a maintainable way. Creating a healthy lifestyle here is key.
10 Tips to Lower Cholesterol & Increase HDL Levels
- Aim to use only healthy fats in your nutritional lifestyle
- Aim to eat 2+ servings of foods rich in Omega-3s weekly
- Stop smoking (like, yesterday)
- Exercise 30-60 minutes’ daily
- Supplement with Coenzyme Q10 for a healthy heart (find out if it’s right for you here)
- Cut back on alcohol intake
- Eat some nuts (find out the healthiest nut here)
- Supplement with Krill Oil (find out why it’s the best omega supplement here)
- Replace simple carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates (we got a link for that too here)
- Decrease stress and cortisol levels (learn about the stress hormone here)