What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell of the body. It is used to help digest fats, strengthen cell membranes and make hormones. Although cholesterol serves many important functions in the body, too much cholesterol in the blood can be dangerous. When blood cholesterol reaches high levels, it can build up on artery walls causing ‘narrowing’ and ‘hardening’ of artery walls which increases the risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke.
The bloodstream transports cholesterol throughout the body by special carriers called lipoproteins. The two major lipoproteins are low density lipoproteins (LDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL)
LDL – The “BAD” Cholesterol
LDL is the material that contributes most to cholesterol build-up and blockage in arteries. Decreasing the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood is an important part of decreasing the risk of heart disease.
HDL – The “GOOD” Cholesterol
HDL helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries by removing cholesterol and carrying it to the liver where it is metabolized. Therefore, for HDL, higher levels are better.
What Do Your Cholesterol Numbers Mean?
Since high blood cholesterol itself does not cause symptoms, many people are unaware that their cholesterol level is too high. Therefore it is recommended that everyone aged 20 and over should have their cholesterol measured at least once every few years. Cholesterol readings you receive from your laboratory generally include total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and Triglyceride (another form of fat in the blood) levels. This blood test is done after 10-12 hours of fasting.
What Affects Cholesterol Levels?
Many factors, such as genetics, obesity, inactivity and poor diet contribute to high cholesterol. Understanding how these factors affect your cholesterol is important in the prevention and treatment of high cholesterol.
- Genetics / Heredity
Since your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes, a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol can sometimes be a reason for high cholesterol levels. It is important to focus on those aspects which you can control rather than feeling genetically doomed.
- Age and Gender
As men and women get older, their cholesterol levels rise. For example, before the age of menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After the age of menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.
Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It also tends to increase cholesterol levels. Losing weight can help lower LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise HDL and lower triglyceride levels.
- Physical Activity
Not being physically active is considered a risk factor for heart disease. Regular exercise can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. The cholesterol lowering effect of exercise is greatest when individuals exercise at least 3 times per week for 30 minutes or more.
Saturated fat and cholesterol in food increases blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fat is the main culprit, but cholesterol in foods also matters. Reducing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet helps lower blood cholesterol levels.
How can you help yourself?
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly (3 times / week for at least 30 min).
- Eat a low-fat, well-balanced diet.
- Check your Cholesterol levels regularly.